By Thomas Kemper*
On September 20, 2017, Hurricane Maria wrecked the building of La Iglesia Metodista Peña de Horeb in Palo Seco, Puerto Rico, destroying the structure but not the church—the church being members of the community of faith who would rally to worship God in other space and minister to their neighbors. After the wind subsided, members crept into what was left of the gutted, roofless sanctuary to find a kind of miracle. The lectern stood upright and on it the Bible, open to Psalm 84, beginning: “How lovely is your dwelling place, O Lord of hosts!…my heart and my flesh sing for joy to the living God.”
The hope, the strength of faith voiced in Psalm 84 became the anthem of Peña de Horeb as well as that of other Methodist congregations in the wake of one of the most devastating hurricanes ever to hit the island, a storm leaving millions without electric power for weeks.
PHOTO: MISAEL D. RODRIGUEZ QUIJANO
Two months after Maria struck, I visited Maunabo, on the southeastern coast, with a team from the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR). The team included UMCOR’s chair, Bishop Thomas Bickerton of New York, two United Methodist missionaries, Carmen Ana Perez and Glorymar Rivera, who lead our post-Maria relief work, Bishop Hector F. Ortiz-Vidal, who is both leader of the Puerto Rico Methodist Church and a Global Ministries director, and Anthony Trueheart, a staff videographer. We followed in the footsteps of a much earlier UMCOR advance team that launched our work only days after air travel was restored to the island.
Goals of Visit
Our visit served three goals:
• To enlarge and coordinate UMCOR’s initiatives with those of Methodists in Puerto Rico and with other partners in the vast clean up and rehabilitation work ahead, to include a structured plan for mission volunteer participants.
• To speed up, if possible, the delivery of relief supplies that had been seriously slowed by ocean shipping delays, limited ground transportation, lack of electric power, and government regulatory snafus. One UMCOR container filled with cleaning supplies, shipped weeks earlier, arrived about the same time as Bishop Bickerton and I, giving us the satisfaction of delivering “cleaning buckets,” a staple provided by UMCOR in the aftermaths of storms, to inland communities.
PHOTO: MISAEL D. RODRIGUEZ QUIJANO
• To show spiritual and humanitarian solidarity with the Methodists and all Puerto Rican people affected by the storm. UMCOR ministers to all in need, regardless of race, religion, nationality/ethnicity or gender.
The people at every stop expressed frustration with the slowness of the federal and state response, notably in restoring electric power. But rather than lament their plight or complain about neglect, Methodists in the congregations we visited had rallied to the occasion and organized to serve those in need of food, clothing, and emergency services. They were sustained by the assurance of Psalm 84 that happy are those whose strength is in God. We found a spirit of trust in God and appreciation to the global Methodist family for prayers and relief supplies.
The Methodist Church of Puerto Rico became autonomous (self-governing) in 1992 but maintains strong ties to The United Methodist Church and Global Ministries. Today it has some 12,000 members in more than 100 congregations spread across the island.
We were deeply impressed by the fortitude, resilience, and initiative of the people we met--people like Haydee and Samuel, who as the storm approached their home put a few belongings in their car and fled. Their home was gone, completely gone, when they returned. Their response was to join a community kitchen ministry through their church in Arecibo, cooking and serving 200 meals three days per week.
Deaths and Migration
We heard reports of more deaths from Hurricane Maria than the official statistics indicate. While we were in Puerto Rico, the New York Times reported that the death toll was more than 1,000, far greater than the official government count of 64. The Times’ figure corresponded to the stories we heard from Methodists involved in the health services.
Out migration has been a recurring pastoral concern. Large numbers of Puerto Ricans, including Methodists, lacking power and immediate income took the option of relocating to the United States, since Puerto Ricans are citizens by virtue of the island’s status as a U.S. territory. Pastor Samuel Febo of Fortuna Methodist Church, the first congregation we visited in San Juan, said that some 20 of his church’s 160 members had left for the mainland U.S. Yet, he reported a renewed sense of purpose among those remaining. His sanctuary was totally destroyed; some remaining rooms were quickly transformed into space for both worship and food distribution.
Brigades of Hope and Love
Bishop Bickerton and I joined Bishop Ortiz, our missionaries, and others from Puerto Rico in Brigades of Hope and Love, an UMCOR/Puerto Rico church program distributing food, water, cleaning supplies, and items for children in communities with Methodist congregations and those without. One of the latter was Playita Cortada in Santa Isabela. In a windswept morning in the hurricane ravaged town, Bishop Ortiz stopped to explain how Methodist outreach incorporated all those in need—distributing hope and love to all.
I have seldom before experienced the reality of how dependent contemporary societies everywhere have become on electric power. Life virtually comes to a standstill when the power goes off: cooking, sanitation, health care, transportation, and other essential activities at night are affected. People are pushed back on their natural abilities and resources. We often find, as have the Methodists of Puerto Rico, that when we unite, human beings can creatively respond to adversity.
Reborn, Revive, Reconstruct
The collaborative Puerto Rico church/UMCOR program is represented by Three Rs: “Reborn, Revive, Reconstruct.” Missionaries Carmen Ana Perez and Glorymar Rivera will be key staff participants. The response will involve structured teams of volunteers from Puerto Rico, the U.S., and other locations operating from three base camps, one each in the northern, southern, and central areas of the island.
Volunteers will be invited to apply and will be scheduled in a pattern that assures completion of work projects in a timely manner and with the participation of local people. We learned a great deal about the productive structuring of mission volunteers in the aftermath of the massive earthquake in Haiti in 2010.
Effective volunteer teams and individuals must be organized and equipped to accomplish needed tasks as determine by local residents.
On our visit to Puerto Rico, we saw evidence of the negative effects of unstructured volunteer efforts, persons coming from the U.S. without preparation, expecting locals to provide them with transportation and food, and with no comprehensive work plans. We want to avoid such outcomes in our Three Rs approach.
As we prepared to leave Puerto Rico, Bishop Bickerton summed up his sense of optimism and concern for the future of the island and our work there. He praised the resilience of the people and his sense of the need for government to act more swiftly to restore power and infrastructure and pave the way for humanitarian organizations to do their jobs.
I am left with similar thoughts and with an indelible image of the Bible in La Iglesia Metodista Peña de Horeb, surviving the storm intact and left open to Psalm 84, which ends with this promise:
O Lord of hosts, happy is everyone who trusts in you.
*Thomas Kemper is the General Secretary of the General Board of Global Ministries.
Watch a video on the UMCOR visit to Puerto Rico narrated by Mr. Kemper.