For most of last week, leaders from Presbyterian Disaster Assistance (PDA) and the Co-Moderators of the 223rd General Assembly (2018), made their way across Puerto Rico to listen, learn, and share with congregations impacted by Hurricane Maria.
It was the first official joint trip as Co-Moderators for Elder Vilmarie Cintrón-Olivieri and the Reverend Cindy Kohlmann. From morning till night, the group, accompanied by PDA Director, the Reverend Dr. Laurie Kraus, the Reverend Dr. Jim Kirk, and the Reverend Edwin González-Castillo, traveled from church to church, meeting with presbytery leaders, pastors, and congregations.
On Friday, the group traveled to the Presbyterian Church of Vega Alta, which became an active center of community support during and after the hurricane.
“Our worship area became a center for the community. We were using the space and doing the best we could with the church members who could access us,” said Marisol Pérez, clerk of the session. “The entire campaign to provide food, water, and other needs lasted two-and-a-half months, from the end of September to mid-November. Our congregation came in early in the morning and served more than a thousand on a daily basis.”
Perez says the church has not stopped serving the community. Thanks to funding from PDA and U.S. churches, she says members are still helping people restore their homes, including three families that lost everything.
“In the last few months, we have begun to move forward,” said Pérez. “We are conducting services, trying to get back on our feet by restoring our temple, but we are still facing challenges like everyone else. When you talk about repairs, it will take time because most of the essentials needed are not on the island.”
Moderator, the Reverend Luis Ocasio, told the delegation that the emotional scars are deep with the people of Puerto Rico.
“A year later, people are still anxious when a storm crops up in the Atlantic. When Isaac was moving across the ocean, everyone became very nervous,” he said. “We’ve had seventy more suicides compared to this time last year. People are emotionally rocked, they are depressed and have lost hope. Thousands of homes still have tarps on their roofs.”
For González-Castillo, PDA’s associate for Hurricane Maria recovery, the return to Vega Alta was personal. Until seven months ago, he was pastor of the church and saw it through Maria and the months after.
“It’s a bit overwhelming, and I’m filled with emotion to be back. It brought back memories and made me recognize how much I miss this pulpit,” he said. “I miss the warmth of the people, the friendliness and welcoming of the congregation. That sentiment that we can be apart for seven months and still be able to sit down and talk and talk. I’m also excited to see them continue the work and hear their stories and it made me proud to see what they were doing.”
The group then traveled to Guaynabo, visiting with the pastor and leaders of Rosa González Presbyterian Church Camarones. The forty-four-year-old church building suffered damage from Maria. Portions of the roof were taken off during the storm, causing significant water damage to walls, offices, and other facilities. A two-story, church-owned building across the street lost the entire roof. Water still leaks into the first floor.
“We have dreams of replacing the roof and making it a nurses’ station, to support the community,” said Pastor Raúl Santiago-Rivera, vice moderator of San Juan Presbytery and chair of the Recovery Commission. “The problem isn’t money. We have the money and the materials. We don’t know who’s going to do the work.”
Santiago-Rivera says the work will require skilled labor and that is a tough commodity to come by right now. He says he’s also met with Presbyterian Hospital officials who are interested in bringing the medical care to the community.
“The hospital is interested in integrating with a community outreach program. The hope is to have nurses to help with basic care such as giving insulin shots, checking blood pressure, and hopefully, helping people avoid trips to the emergency room,” he said. “It depends on how long it takes to get a roof on the building.”
Raúl says the church hosted a “Rise and Shine” event in November, giving community residents an opportunity to relax, socialize, and step back from the stresses of clean up and repairs.
Over five days, the Co-Moderators and PDA leaders visited numerous congregations and church leaders on the island and took part in a “Rise and Shine” event on Saturday.
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