SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (PNS) — Spirits were high as services began Sunday at Monte Flores Iglesia Presbyterian Church near downtown San Juan. The people were warm and welcoming to the Presbyterian Disaster Assistance delegation that had come to worship and fellowship. There was no power, but that didn’t stop the congregation from lifting its voice amidst a light breeze and brief downpours.
If not for the power outage and the boxes of donated goods in an adjoining room, it would be easy to forget about the devastation caused by Hurricane Maria over 50 days ago. Even without lights and music from an electric keyboard, the musicians turned to guitars and drums to set the tone for worship.
The PDA delegation is spending the week visiting with churches, church leaders, Federal Emergency Management Agency representatives and communities to assess needs and determine how Presbyterians can help.
But before those meeting began, the team split into three groups, worshipping at separate churches within San Juan Presbytery.
At Monte Flores, the Rev. Arelis Cardona Morales preached from 2 Corinthians 8: 1-15, and focused on the need to keep reaching out to those who are suffering.
“Even after 53 days of no electricity, we should be asking what have I given instead of what have I received. Generosity is necessary,” she said. “Our generosity makes us feel richer inside. Generosity changes everything. The disaster in some ways has been a blessing. At first, we were so full of fear. But now we see this an opportunity to be together to share and work together among all churches in the presbytery to provide food and water, but also to exchange ideas.”
“Attending Sunday worship was an incredible experience. I saw a silent keyboard, no printed liturgy or lyrics, and happy people! They were delighted to be at church praising their savior,” said Dartha Rivera, a member of PDA’s National Response Team. “Pastor Cardona’s message to share/give/help without fear and see God use each of us was inspiring beyond words. I am convinced the congregation heard and received that message and was spurred to action, for this week, and many to come.”
Electric power is spotty in the blocks surrounding the church. One member was forced to leave their home across the street from the church when Maria destroyed the roof.
Despite the joy of worship, hundreds of people in the area are still without jobs and power restoration could take months if not years.
“This is a poor community and poverty is high,” says Marcos Garcia, a college senior and church member. “Dominican immigrants in the area struggle to find jobs and a source of income. “Most of our efforts are about trying to provide relief for them”.
Garcia says simple things like drinking cold water, are like being “touched by God.” Ice is a precious commodity.
PDA Director the Rev. Dr. Laurie Kraus and the agency’s associate for domestic response, the Rev. Jim Kirk, worshipped Sunday with the Presbyterian Church in Vega Alta, about half an hour out of San Juan. The church sustained serious windstorm damage that compromised the roof and damaged sanctuary equipment and furnishings. Many church members’ homes were also damaged, along with numerous houses and businesses in this community. Kraus said the congregation, modest in size, is mighty in spirit.
“Without power since Irma, the congregation has served as a community distribution and support center, processing and distributing thousands of meals for neighbors daily for the last five weeks, distributing emergency monies to those in critical need, and other services. The church is also planning, along with ecumenical neighbors in Alta Vega, to host over 2,000 persons for a hot, Thanksgiving dinner,” she said. “New faces are showing up in worship, having seen the face of Christ in the generosity of the congregation’s members, who, in deprivation themselves, have shared what they have with open-hearted kindness.”
Kirk and Kraus also visited the First Presbyterian Church in Levittown, Puerto Rico. The congregation also experienced significant damage to their church and community. Many members were deeply impacted.
“Not only do both congregations have in common the experience of Hurricane Maria, they have the desire expressed in the book of Philippians to, ‘look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others,’” said Kirk. “Both congregations, as well as so many others throughout Puerto Rico, are reaching out to their communities with the love of Christ.”
The delegation itinerary includes meetings with FEMA, the San Juan Presbytery as well as the leadership of the Northwest, Southwest and Synod in Puerto Rico.
by Rick Jones, Presbyterian News Service
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