The following is a reflection from Patrick Youells, one of the volunteers working in Puerto Rico this week to aid in recovery from Hurricane Maria. Over this week and the next, 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.
On Wednesday morning I woke up on the wrong side of the bed, in a puddle of my own sweat, because we have no air conditioning. I shuffled, still half asleep, to the morning meeting room and plopped down for breakfast. This particular morning, I had no appetite. Having forgotten that I didn’t eat much the night before, I had a light breakfast of a single bowl of cereal and some coffee. It wasn’t until an hour late when we arrived at our job site that I had realized my critical mistake. I was light-headed and generally worn down. I needed to eat something. So when the opportunity arrived to leave the job site and head to the local Wal-Mart to pick up supplies, I jumped at the opportunity to escape to some food.
We arrived in the parking lot at which point I told Pastor Mark I was going to pop into the McDonald’s to grab some food and I would meet him back inside. Finally, a chance to restart my day correctly. Unfortunately, that sense of relief didn’t last long. I had not realized this was my first venture alone in a Spanish-speaking community. A thought which I had not had until I was standing in front of the counter. As I craned my head upwards struggling to figure out what a ”hamburguesa” was I heard a quiet, “Hola.” I glanced down to see a smiling young Puerto Rican women in her McDonald’s uniform in front of me. Maybe it was the panic in my eyes or maybe it was my lobster red sunburn, but she immediately giggled and said, “Puedo ayudarte?” I glanced back up at the menu and looked for the familiar numbers next to the Spanish words I couldn’t read. I looked back down at her and began counting on my hands in front of her: “Uno, dos, tres, cuatro, cinco … Número CINCO por favor!” I smiled broadly, having mastered Spanish on the spot. “Que tamaño de bebida?” she replied. I was all out of tricks. No amount of counting on my hands would save me now. I let out an audible, “Oh crap.”
What came next was the same level of patience and love I had come hoping to give to the people with whom we came to serve. She held up her hand indicating ”one moment” and walked away. Returning with three size cups she laid them out on the counter in front of me. We walked through the rest of my order playing a game of charades. Miming and using exaggerated facial expressions to convey our words. A minute later when we finished my order we high fived and smiled at one another. It was the single best interaction with a fast food worker I have ever had. And while it was neither glamorous or exciting, it displayed part of the truth of this island.
The people are warm and welcoming even when you feel like a stranger. They make every attempt to communicate, even when language is a barrier. I see a strength in their eyes and a beautiful welcoming in their smiles. And I can already see myself returning next year to continue our work and serve beside our brothers and sisters.
The work is far from over and the need is great. The ultimate truth is that the hurricane disrupted more than just what the water damaged. It interrupts the local economy and has caused a ripple effect that puts the most economically vulnerable over the edge financially. Just because the power has been turned back on doesn’t mean everyone can afford to keep the lights on. Many have already left the island seeking new economic opportunities stateside and without the support of local charities the burden of rebuilding has falls to those that remain behind.