The following is a reflection from Alicia Ribeiro, member from Holy Trinity, Laurel, one of the volunteers working in Puerto Rico this week to aid in recovery from Hurricane Maria. Over the next weeks, volunteers will serve and support as a part of the Building Puentes initiative with the Caribbean Synod, the Metro D.C. Synod, and our Delaware-Maryland Synod. We will be sharing reflections on their here on our blog.

Monday morning curled in around me as a cool draft of air conditioning across the ceiling. As I became aware of the sounds of active bodies around me I decided to join the world of the awakened. Today would be the day I joined ranks with those of my age. I had previously been socializing with those kind adults with parenting instincts and the young adults that were like older respected siblings to me. Those people were kind and inclusive to an outsider like me, but I was still not one of their own. I was one to check in on, not one to share a beverage with or compare parenting tactics or timeshares with. Also I needed some people to go on wild adventures with. The adults would not do for that purpose.

Today was not a day to build physical structures. For the people of Puerto Rico it was a day to protest for better political structures. And for the volunteers at the Lutheran relief camp it was a day to build relationships with each other. With this goal in mind I sat next to a girl I had ridden in the van with to the camp. She was quite friendly and even invited me to join the younger generation at another table. I of course eagerly accepted this invitation and sat with the other vaguely high school aged girls. I enquired as to their names and churches. After introductions the girls quickly set about braiding hair and weaving friendship bracelets. I asked for some string and started my own. I worked industriously, speaking little.

After breakfast we all took a group photo in front of, and in some cases up in, a large tree. After the photograph I asked what the girl I met would be doing. She didn’t know so I wandered around the camp until I found myself talking to a man from my church about potential electronic book inventions with actual pages. (Shout out to you, if you’re reading this.) We meandered down to the pool. I was so absorbed by his explanation of his life history that I almost forgot to be disappointed that I wasn’t interacting with someone of my own generation. Almost. But it was still a lovely morning. We sat in the shade on ceramic pool benches and felt precious breezes of subtle wind. I learned much about the importance of thrift stores, haircuts, and nurturing a life partner’s relationship. We made our way back up to the mess hall for lunch and a meeting.

Finding a place to sit was another point of anxiety. I didn’t want to sit with the elders anymore and I didn’t want to sit with the same girls I had sat with before. I wanted to sit with someone new. I found myself sitting near a high school aged boy and a couple of adults. I asked a bunch of questions of the boy once I figured out he was a senior as I would be going into the year he had just survived. After these questions I fell into silence and stared into space while I chewed on my sandwich. Next was more free time before we departed for the beach. At this point my mind was crowded with thoughts like “Why am I so lonely?”, “I miss my friends”, “It’s my fault” and “Why am I like this?” I knew I was slipping into a state I didn’t want to be in so I changed route from the room I shared to a walk around the camp. “I need to stop thinking without actually thinking” I said to myself and decided to analyze myself in a more productive way. As I walked down the sunny sunny hill I had the following conversation with myself:
What’s wrong?
I’m really anxious.
Why?
I feel all this pressure to be social and I feel inadequate.
Why?
My sister is stuck at home and would do anything to be here. So I have to take advantage of my situation and make the most out of it. I have to have fun. I also have internal ideas for myself. I wanted to have some friends my age to have wild adventures with. In a way, I wanted to change myself. But I’m not like that and I can’t do that.
So what can you do?
I have to have fun in my own way and in my own context. I also have to remember my purpose.
And what is that purpose?
My purpose was to come here and help the people of Puerto Rico that few other people would help. If I do that then I’ve achieved my goal and it would be enough.

At this point a lifting feeling rose inside me from somewhere within my rib cage, like a weight had been lifted, but warmer. I spotted two boys walking over to a tree. I thought “maybe…” and approached them. One of them was pulling on a limb until it snapped and hung limply down, it’s long fronds drooping.
“I told you not to break it” the other boy said.
“Well I never do what you tell me,” tree snapping boy said. I recognized tree snapping boy from the van earlier.
“What are you doing?,” I asked.
“We’re making a spear” other boy said.
“What are you going to stab?,”
“Fish” tree snapping boy said.
“At the beach?”
“Yeah”
“I think I’m going to watch if it works,” I said.

Later I made sure to go in the same van as tree snapping boy and other boy. On the way we made conversation about the particular curiosities of the intriguing state of Delaware. I felt at ease, I don’t know whether it was the voices or the uncensored flow of information, but I was more relaxed.

I walked across the sand at first but it turned into a hop and then into a run as the sand burned through the bottoms of my feet. The water was warm and welcoming and I quickly walked in, finally submerging myself completely. “No fish” I thought, looking through the clear, clear water.

The other boys in the group soon joined and we all swam to the rocks. I recoiled at first at the slimy, slippery surface of the rocks which felt like something you’d accidentally touch in dish water. Then I grabbed a crag of the rock and pulled myself up. Once on the rocks there were many flat places to rest one’s feet. Some of the boys jumped off of a rock back into the water. At first I looked at the space, calculating whether I would land on a sharp rock or in the soft sand after crashing through the water. Then I ran and jumped, feeling myself commit as I hurled towards the water. Water crashed over my head and the burn of salt flushed up my nose while my feet were greeted by velvety sand. Then I emerged, water dripping painful droplets into my eyes in triumph.

We noticed shells clinging to the water darkened rocks and the senior high school boy peeled one off and placed it in his hand. The “it” soon became known as Escar and we all gathered around to watch “Escar go”. Escar left a clear trail of slime on senior boy’s hand that remained even when rinsed with seawater. Escar clung to senior boy, even when he flipped his hand upside down, a loyal companion. Soon more snails were distributed. When one was placed on my hand, a strike of surprise went through me when I felt the living thing first cling to my hand. Then the little feelers emerged from the shell, inquisitively hovering over my skin.

We decided to explore the other side of the rocks to look for more wildlife. So this was what it was like to go on an adventure. We found various mysteries, including a sea urchin and a potential anemone, although no one wanted to test that theory. There were also uniquely patterned and colored snails and a lone hermit crab.

We joined with the girls and there were various attempts, successes and failures at chicken fights, three person stacks and cheer positions. Then we all- adults, young people, girls and boys- gathered in a wide circle to toss a frisbee, football and volleyball around. I wasn’t really good at this at all but stood in the circle to show I was part of the community.

After we arrived back at the camp I joined my newly found delawarian friends at the pool. We messed around with pool chairs and the net used to fish seeds out of the pool, spraying each other with water. I was invited to join them for dinner, and I did, deciding I needed to see an interaction between other boy and his famed best friend.

After dinner was a devotion about the parts of the church being compared to the parts of the body. Each part has different skills but all are necessary for the body to function. I didn’t know which part of the body I was but someone spoke up and said I was the thumbs because I was writing the blog post. Someone said that it was hard to put thoughts into words and I said I had too many words. Then the whole group started talking about how important my perspective was as one of the young people. Shoutout to the people in my devotional group for validating me and making me feel seen. Also shoutout to anyone who read this far into this blog post. My eyes started to swell with tears which I blinked away as I answered the next question.

After the devotion a man (a Lutheran intern pastor from San Juan) came in to speak to us about the political situation in Puerto Rico. I will give a brief summary, but disclaimer: you should definitely read an article, this is just what I got out of it. There are three political parties in Puerto Rico, the ones in favor of Puerto Rico becoming a state, the ones in favor of it remaining a territory and the ones in favor of it being an independent country. The state and territory parties are the prevalent ones. The governor and other officials including the secretary of education were found guilty of corruption. There was also a group chat released with much offensive content, making fun of any minority, underprivileged, or marginalized group you can imagine. This included victims of the hurricane. The people of Puerto Rico, regardless of political ideology, started to protest, demanding the resignation of the governor. Our speaker went into much more detail about the elections and the backgrounds of the people involved, but I can’t make this blog post too long.

After listening to more of what the man had to say I sat alone at a table to write this blog post. I wanted to be secluded to be able to focus on my writing. Then branch snapping boy came and sat down next to me, not saying anything but looking at his phone. Later, other boy and his famed friend came with some cards. “Finally”, I thought, “people are coming to me. I think this means I have friends”. I played a couple of rounds of cards and then walked down to the pool to hang out with branch snapping boy and other boy.

It was strange and unsettling to stumble through the dark, unsure of where my feet would land. I saw the bright white light of the pool, piercing through the darkness. I was happy. Thoughts floated up around me and I pushed them back down because I just wanted to keep being happy.

I don’t know if this is important or relevant to the trip, it all seems too personal. We did not get to do any physical service today for our Puerto Rican neighbors, for very understandable reasons, but that was what I expected this blog post to be about. Of course in life God never gives us what we expect and this blog post was no exception. Instead this blog post is the very honest experience of a young person at Building Puentes. I think the importance of this was to show the building of fellowship within a group of volunteers and the way that various preconceived notions I had about others and myself were dissolved. I remember everyone’s names but due to the personal nature of this narrative I did not disclose them. If you did happen to get anything out of reading this narrative, I would be immensely satisfied as that would mean I have done my job well.