The following is a reflection from Kendra Hernandez, one of the volunteers working in Puerto Rico this week to aid in recovery from Hurricane Maria. From last week through the end of this week, more than 40 volunteers will work alongside Lutheran Disaster Response as a part of the Building Puentes initiative with the Caribbean Synod, the Metro D.C. Synod, and our Delaware-Maryland Synod. A few of them will be reflecting on their experiences, and we will share them here on our blog. You can find all of the Building Puentes posts here.

If I were to ask you what an outsider is, you would probably be able to tell me. If I were to ask you who feels like an outsider within a group, you might not be able to tell me quite so easily. These feelings of not belonging arise from a variety of places, whether it be a change in physical surroundings, an emotional disconnection, or blatant language barriers. Coming into these two weeks, I knew I would be an outsider in many ways. I worried about not being from the Delaware-Maryland area [ed: Kendra is from Las Cruces, New Mexico] and not knowing anyone. I worried about not knowing Spanish as much as I wanted to and that I wouldn’t be able to communicate with the people of Puerto Rico. I worried about such minuscule things that would damper my excitement and twist my expectations before even arriving.

The first week demolished these inhibiting feelings. No one knew each other and we were a group of strangers soon to become a family. We helped each other to understand the language and the culture of Puerto Rico. In the second week, we met an entirely new group of strangers who only added to this family we were building together.

At one point or another, everyone felt like an outsider in some way, even if just from being in a new place. The people of Puerto Rico shared their many stories of hardship. Their stories of devastation. Their stories of loss. Yet they showed us love and a very warm welcome. They were excited to see us and meet us and hug us. They wanted to know our names and where we were from. Most of all, they wanted us to take their stories home with us. Stories of how some went as long as nine months without electricity, or how they would wait eight hours for only 10 gallons of gas which was their “allowance” per household. Stories of how to this day, people wait 8-10 hours to receive food from the local food pantry truck. Due to Hurricane Irma hitting shortly before Maria, some did not even know Maria was coming because the news was only spread via word-of-mouth. The people of Puerto Rico were hurt and are still hurting. The process of recovery from a storm like Maria takes about 15 years and can be pushed back if another hurricane comes along in that time. For this reason, they are ecstatic to see volunteers willing to help – and more importantly, care.

When we came as outsiders to this new place full of love and hope, we found friends. We laughed together, cried together, sang together, and danced (a lot) together. We found a family. We found a home.