Puerto Rican bishop: ‘This is a catastrophe’
By the Rev. Gustavo Vasquez and Linda Bloom
Oct. 5, 2017 | UMNS
The Methodist Church of Puerto Rico has activated an emergency strategy to respond to community needs following Hurricane Maria.
“My definition of the situation is the same as FEMA’s and other government entities,” Bishop Hector Ortiz wrote in an Oct. 4 letter explaining the church’s initial plans. “They have all said that ‘this is a catastrophe.’”
While the Puerto Rican church has the support of the United Methodist Committee on Relief, resources are limited for now. “The complexity of this catastrophe has delayed the support that we need,” the bishop said in the letter. “We have been out of power, out of communication, and many of the local routes are blocked or destroyed. It has been a big obstacle to complete an evaluation of the situation around our churches.”
Assistance will be needed to provide a complete assessment of the post-Maria situation, Ortiz said, but Puerto Rican Methodist leaders are doing what they can. He encouraged donations to UMCOR and the Puerto Rican church’s social holiness agency to help buy needed supplies, including water, food, batteries, solar light bulbs and radios.
“We have been using our financial reserves to help people in need around our churches,” he wrote. “We have been taking different initiatives to help our neighboring communities. We opened a church in the southeast (where the hurricane made landfall) as a collection center to prepare food packs for people who are blocked off and out of food.”
In the poor suburban neighborhood of Barrio Obrero near San Juan, for example, a food pantry at San Pablo Methodist Church has served some 5,000 meals to the community, the bishop said.
Church volunteers also ventured far from San Juan. On Oct. 4, a group of Methodist youth, pastors and lay people from the metropolitan area visited Jayuya and Utuado in central Puerto Rico.
The brigade, organized by Puerto Nuevo Methodist Church and led by Ortiz, prepared about 200 food packages to help mitigate the growing need for water and food in those communities, which were hit hard by Hurricane Maria.
The Rev. Virna Solis, pastor of the Puerto Nuevo congregation, said that the task of distributing food and water "has been going on in sectors such as Guaynabo, Patillas, Villas del Sol and this community. I would say that we have distributed almost 500 packages of food, including what we have taken to Jayuya and Utuado. "
For her, the “most satisfying” aspect has been the number of people involved in the work. “About 50 people helped us make purchases, prepare packages and distribute them with donations we receive from members of our congregation and other churches that also participate,” Solis said.
At Wenceslao Marrero Methodist Church in Mameyes in the Jayuya area, the group was welcomed by the Rev. Gladis Rivera, pastor of the church and administrator of the Methodist camp.
HOW TO HELP
United Methodists wishing to help can make donations directly through UMCOR’s Domestic Disaster Response Advance #901670.
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Rivera spoke of several deaths related to the earthquake, including her ex-husband. She lamented the loss of housing and crops, the destruction of the electric grid and communications systems and the growing shortages of food and water.
"We are waiting for the army’s help in Mameyes,” she said, noting that they hadn’t seen much of an official presence yet. Besides food and water, other urgent needs include child and adult diapers and flashlight batteries.
Rivera said she was happy to see the church bringing material aid and a word of encouragement to those who do not have the ability to move, such as the elderly.
In the midst of this difficult situation, the church has an important task ahead with the pastoral and spiritual care of the affected communities. "We have a faithful God who accompanies us and who tells us in His word that He will be with us every day until the end; a God who tells us that He will be with us even in the midst of the shortages we are experiencing,” she said. “This is not easy because there are people who have lost everything …”
One hundred food and water packages were delivered to El Buen Pastor Methodist Church in Utuado, where Pastor Jose Daniel García gave thanks and expressed pride in the Methodist Church of Puerto Rico.
“The reality is that we have felt helpless before the impossibility of having access to many basic necessities such as fuel, drinking water and food,” Garcia told the group. “We have seen a deployment, which I understand is the armed forces, bringing food and water by helicopter. However, we have not seen those supplies in the hands of the people, and that is where they are needed.”
Winds and water were the main causes of the damages that Utuado suffered with the passage of Hurricane Maria. “There are a number of houses affected, especially those made of wood with metal roofs, which were partially or totally destroyed. Although in our church we had minor damages, five of our families lost everything,” the pastor explained.
Garcia added that he and his church are trying to “to embrace, accompany and assist” isolated and affected communities. “We want this church to become a collection center to distribute essential supplies, and we are making contacts to obtain the necessary support. At this moment, people are hungry and thirsty and that is the main thing. We need food and water to offer them."
Ortiz is encouraging all local churches to meet on Sundays and weekdays to “maintain our spiritual connection” during the difficult recovery period after Maria.
“Our local churches have to be communities of hope,” he wrote. “The hope of the Gospel that is much more than optimism. The hope that comes from the participation in the construction of the new ‘mañana’ (tomorrow), when we can transform the reality that our people are living today. We are committed to that.
“The local church connection with their communities is the base of the spiritual energy,” the bishop said. “It moves us to serve, to help, and to support others. We need to maintain our spiritual strength to help the people of Puerto Rico to rebuild our island. The support has been coming, but it is not enough.”
The Rev. Gustavo Vasquez is the director of Hispanic/Latino Communications at United Methodist Communications. Bloom is the assistant news editor for United Methodist News Service and is based in New York. Follow her at https://twitter.com/umcscribe or contact her at 615-742-5470 or firstname.lastname@example.org. To read more United Methodist news, subscribe to the free Daily or Weekly Digests.