BY Stephen M. Fearing
Grace and peace to you from the Synod’s Puerto Rico Partnerships Taskforce (PRPT)!
We are honored to serve you as we seek to reinvigorate our partnerships between the Synod of the Northeast and the people of Puerto Rico.
Recently, I had the privilege of traveling to Puerto Rico with the other four members of the PRPT: Crystal Garcia (Monmouth), Leslie Latham (Western New York), Margaret Mitsuyasu (Synod Mission Coordinator), and Amaury Tañón-Santos (Synod Networker). The purpose of our trip was to meet face-to-face with ecclesial leaders from around Puerto Rico, to listen to their stories, and to begin to discern together ways that we can walk alongside our Puerto Rican sisters and brothers in this particularly painful time following the devastation of Hurricane Maria.
Below are a list of three observations during our brief time with the Presbyterians of Puerto Rico.
Communities in Trauma -- I could see it in the eyes of the pastors with whom we met: exhaustion, weariness, tension. These women and men have been through more than I could even imagine. As a full-time pastor myself, I have never experienced having to come mop the floors of the sanctuary before worship because there was no roof. I’ve never had to worry about how to get the body of one of my deceased congregants safely to a funeral home because the roads were impassable. These folks have experienced trauma in the realest sense of the word and they, understandably, are still experiencing whiplash from the chaos of the past 8 months.
Communities with Hope -- despite, or perhaps because of, the trauma of the past 8 months, our Puerto Rican sisters and brothers remain steadfast in proclaiming the hope of the Gospel. One of my favorite stories is of the Presbytery of San Juan (Presbiterio de San Juan) who, since the hurricane, have been sponsoring a series of events called “Rise & Shine” (Levántate y Resplandece) among each of the congregations in the presbytery. In addition to providing meals, distributing food vouchers, and offering access to other social services, these events feed the soul as well as the stomach. Some of these “Rise & Shine” events have hired stand-up comics as their MCs to help lift the spirits of those who have been worn thin from such turbulent times.
Communities of Inclusivity -- The Presbyterian congregations in Puerto Rico have been, quite literally, the lifesavers of their communities. When the U.S. Government failed to adequately provide social services, people went to the church. When electricity continued to be absent, people went to the church for ice, water, laundry, food, bathrooms, and shelter. To the Puerto Rican congregations, the only necessary requirement to be a member of the church was to be someone in need. The church saw a need and provided. Even in the midst of such scarcity and chaos, our sisters and brothers in Puerto Rico have been a living embodiment of a parable of the Kingdom of Heaven, where Christ multiplies loaves and fish and all who are in need are welcomed, loved, and provided for.
Those of us who serve within the bounds of the Synod of the Northeast have much to learn from our Puerto Rican sisters and brothers. I am convinced that these renewed partnerships will be an abundant journey for all involved. In the meantime, keep them in your prayers. Keep them in your liturgies and your worship services. Keep in touch with the Synod so you can learn how your community of faith can partner with us to take seriously scripture’s mandate for us to “bear one another’s burdens.”
Grace and peace,
~ Rev. Stephen M. Fearing
Prayer is powerful! It is nothing less than carrying concerns and requests, both our own and those of others, into the very presence of the God who created the universe and continues to sustain it today. Let us not neglect this powerful opportunity and relationship!
Throughout the PRPT's time on the island in March, we were repeatedly humbled by how much our physical presence seemed to matter to our partners there. While it remains important to do this carefully and with a good deal of respect and sensitivity to the needs of our partners, let us not underestimate the value of our presence with our Puerto Rican siblings.
Mental Health Resources & Support
Our partners report that almost every person on the island is suffering from some level of post-traumatic stress, and that the suicide rate is increasing exponentially. Puerto Rican pastors themselves are under particular pressure, navigating the concerns of their own families (the same as everyone else!), the increased needs of their congregations (often including repairs to damaged buildings), and in many cases organizing their congregations to be the primary centers of aid for their communities. They are, understandably, on the brink of burnout. We do not have particular requests or suggestions at this time, but please include this in your prayers.
As one would expect, assistance with structural repairs is a significant need. Roofs in particular are a high priority, as without a sound roof in place, water damage to the rest of the structure continues to increase. Financial support as well as skilled labor are both needed.
Preparing for the Future
Our partners recognize that the reality of future emergencies on the scale of Hurricane Maria is not a question of “if” but “when.” Recognizing the church’s critical role in this time of crisis, and wanting to be prepared to respond even more effectively in the future, a few items routinely surfaced in our conversations in Puerto Rico:
Particularly for church buildings so they can be better equipped to provide aid in a variety of forms to their communities, especially in the early days of a crisis.
Similarly, water tanks will allow churches to serve their communities by providing water for drinking, ice, laundry, and showers when normal services are disrupted.
When people had no power or water, and/or their appliances were water-damaged, several congregations provided laundry facilities to their communities, which were much appreciated. Several others hope to establish the capability in preparation for future needs.
Not just food banks, but reserves. Hurricane Maria revealed Puerto Rico’s inadequate preparation for disasters of Maria’s caliber. Between poorly prepared logistics and impassable roads, many people were forced to wait dangerously long for critical aid and supplies. Our partners, particularly those on the western and inland parts of the island, expressed a desire to learn how to develop large-scale food reserve strategies that will allow them to be less dependent on outside aid in the case of future catastrophes.
Puerto Rico’s struggle for recovery is multi-faceted and there are many systemic forces working against them. It is important not to speak for our Puerto Rican sisters and brothers, but there are certain settings and situations when outside voices can offer support and provide pressure on others to help our partners gain accesses to the resources they need. Contacting your Congressional representatives and urging them to ensure that aid to Puerto Rico remains a high priority is a good place to start.
Recovery after a natural disaster, especially one that inflicted as much damage as Hurricane Maria, is a long, arduous, and expensive endeavor. Add to that the systemic forces conspiring against them, and our Puerto Rican partners have an overwhelming task ahead of them. Financial partnership will be a critical component of their recovery endeavor.
Presbiterio de San Juan (San Juan Presbytery)
Levántate y Resplandece (Rise & Shine)
Referenced in Stephen’s letter above, the Presbiterio de San Juan is hosting outreach & aid events in each of the communities where its congregations are located. On average, the events have attracted more than 500 adults and an estimated 200 children.
At each event, which lasts no more than 3 hours, they offer prayer and counseling, distribute various forms of aid including food vouchers, invite federal agencies and non-profits to be present and available to attendees for information and resourcing, and provide activities for children. In addition to the aid, the events provide some fun and light-heartedness, which the organizing committee believes is a critical resilience strategy.
With support from the Presbyteries of Elizabeth and Western New York (WNY funds facilitated by the PRPT) and designated Synod funds, the Presbiterio de San Juan has been equipped to host first-round events in all of its congregation’s communities, which will continue to take place over the next several months.
It is their hope to offer second-round events in each community as well.
The PRPT encourages the Synod’s presbyteries and congregations to consider supporting this work. We would love to connect congregations in the Northeast with congregations in the San Juan region to co-host the second-round events.
The Rise & Shine committee budgets carefully, with each event costing about $3000 to host (including the cost of the food vouchers).
If your congregation or presbytery would be interested in supporting a Rise & Shine event, please let us know and we would be delighted to facilitate the connection!
Presbiterio del Noroeste (Northwest Presbytery)
Generators & Water Tanks
The Presbiterio del Noroeste has requested our partnership to purchase a generator and two large water tanks for each of their 31 congregations. Many of these congregations served (and are still serving) their communities heroically following the decimation of Hurricane Maria. These three items will help them be better prepared to meet the critical needs of their communities when the next disaster strikes.
The Synod, through the PRPT, has agreed to this request.
Each generator (5250 watts, duel fuel) costs approximately $560 and the water tanks (200 gallons per tank) are approximately $140 each (all three combined, $840 per church).
If your congregation would like to sponsor the generator and/or water tank(s) for a partner congregation in the Northwest Presbytery of Puerto Rico, we would love to facilitate that connection!
If you host a Vacation Bible School or other church camp this summer, perhaps you could challenge your participants (if your group is small, potentially with a matching grant from your mission committee or session) to raise the funds for a water tank! If it’s helpful, we would be happy to talk with you about how to introduce the project to your campers.
Presbiterio del Suroeste (Southwest Presbytery)
We are continuing to work with the Presbiterio del Suroeste about specific opportunities to partner with them in their recovery efforts. We will keep you posted!