by Bishop Bill Gohl
“Let us start building!” So they committed themselves to the common good. –Nehemiah 2:18b
A portion of a note from Pastor Mark Parker (Breath of God, Highlandtown) to the Building Puentes mission teams headed to Puerto Rico this summer: “Thank you so much for your desire and commitment to serve alongside our neighbors in Puerto Rico this summer! The response from individuals and congregational groups has been amazing, and we’re excited to continue working together as a team in the months leading up to our time together in Puerto Rico. Our current registration list has 106 volunteers from 24 different congregations, ranging in age across seven decades, and coming from at least six states. It’s an amazing group of people with a variety of experiences, stories, gifts, and abilities–I can’t wait for you all to begin to get to know each other and serve together.”
When people, from time to time, ask what value there is to being Church – and Synod – together, this is a powerful example of how we are tied to one another by the call of the Holy Spirit, in service to God and neighbor. The Building Puentes Initiative is an innovative collaboration among the Caribbean Synod, the Metropolitan Washington, DC Synod, and our Delaware-Maryland Synod, helping us to build cultural bridges and opportunities for serving alongside one another. Some of those opportunities are around issues of leadership and learning; others are about sharing material aid, time and talent for the physical rebuilding of the communities across Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands; each a sign of God’s gracious love given to all and shared for all.
As creation – world, church, and humanity – yearns for ways to cross divides, our church celebrates our connectedness both to one another and to the shared work of Christ in our communities and across the world. Come, friends, let us attend!
Then I said to them, “You see the trouble we are in, how Jerusalem lies in ruins with its gates burned. Come, let us rebuild the wall of Jerusalem, so that we may no longer suffer disgrace.” I told them that the hand of my God had been gracious upon me, and also the words that the king had spoken to me. Then they said, “Let us start building!” So they committed themselves to the common good. –Nehemiah 2:17-18
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.
The following is a reflection from Agatha So and Dave Reid, two 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.
It’s Wednesday, and a group of new and old friends are headed to El Yunque National Forest for a little rest and relaxation. The work we have been doing has been humbling – pulling and whacking weeds, painting, shoveling, power washing, carrying logs and benches, and clearing out debris from a neighbor’s home damaged by Hurricane Maria. We’ve seen the fruits of our labor, and we’re having some fun doing it.
We (Agatha and Dave) have volunteered to write this blog and wanted to include the ideas and thoughts of our crew. The idea of inclusivity has guided our work and daily activities. Over the last few days, during lunch, while serving, and during dinner, we asked members of our crew the following question:
What word or phrase best reflects or represents your experiences and thoughts about our service so far?
Some of our crew gave us a word, some a story and some talked for 10 minutes. The following themes embody our crew’s experience in Puerto Rico.
The words of our crew are bold and italicized.
Community, Connection y La Comunidad were major themes.
The crew experienced a connection with a variety of communities: our own community of volunteers, our Puerto Rican neighbors, and our hosts at the Campamento Eduardo Roig. Our work has been about embracing each of these communities.
While a few of us knew each other before coming to Puerto Rico, the majority of us arrived on the island as strangers. Our community of volunteers came from as far as New Mexico, Wisconsin, Delaware, Pennsylvania, and Maryland – and we’ve been learning more about each other through our service, sharing meals, daily devotions, and while having fun. It’s amazing how a service trip has brought this group of strangers together as friends.
For some of our crew, this was not the first time in Puerto Rico. Pastor Mark has been coming to the same camp for nearly 20 years. Some others have long-time connections with people here. For others, this is our first trip to a very hot and tropical part of the country. And through our service this week, we have begun to make connections with the local community surrounding the camp.
I will go Lord, if you need me and send me were other major themes.
Members of our crew have based their commitment to service on a strong foundation of faith. During our daily devotions, different people lead discussions, reflections, and prayers about why we are here, what it means to serve, and how that service relates to God and our personal faith. For some of us, the motivation to serve comes from the desire to make a tangible difference.
At the end of the day, we’re all spending our days sweating. Despite the climate being wicked hot, we’ve made great progress as a team, surrounded by beautiful scenery, palm trees and the coqui (frog native to Puerto Rico). We hope our contributions will be a meaningful contribution to our neighbors in Puerto Rico. Members of our crew have described these last few days as life-changing, and say they are grateful for the opportunity to recognize the privilege we have to come and serve and then leave to our air-conditioned homes.
The crew has shared that these have been some powerful days, with so much joy in such devastation. Even in the most trying times, we’ve learned from our Puerto Rican neighbors to fire up a grill and turn on some music while waiting for hours for a much-needed emergency food distribution.
We’ll close with lyrics shared with us by one of our crew members. The song is called “Vivir Mi Vida,” by singer/performer Marc Anthony:
“Para limpiar las heridas [de Maria]”
English translation: “To wash away the wounds of [Hurricane] Maria.”
Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in. –Isaiah 58:12
A year ago, Hurricane Maria ravaged the Caribbean, leaving 70,000+ homes uninhabitable and more than 3 million people without power or water. It can only be described as a catastrophe on the level of Katrina or Sandy, with the desolation and destruction those names bring to mind in wide swaths of the US mainland. In spite of the partisan bickering about the “official” death toll, there is wide agreement that it’s bad, and that the reconstruction has been slow and inadequate to the devastation experienced throughout the Caribbean, with a special eye on our siblings in Puerto Rico.
The explanations for these inadequacies of response are just as inadequate. Distance from the mainland; language barriers that are real for some and imagined for others in positions of authority; the difficulty in conveying material aid and skilled assistance to the islands; but also the not-well-hidden disdain of some who see the Caribbean, particularly Puerto Rico, as a distant cousin of the United States.
The New England Journal of Medicine reports that the death of more than 4,000 people in the Caribbean can be connected to the hurricane, including over a thousand people who died for a lack of adequate health care after the hurricane was over. If this had happened on the mainland, the howling would have been intense and the response swift; but in the case of the Caribbean, there is a cacophony of crickets, and it’s increasingly more difficult to get the attention of the press or the rank and file citizenry, let alone those in government, who are sworn to protect these vulnerable citizens of the United States.
You see, I’ve seen this reality for myself. I’ve been to Puerto Rico in recent days and will return in the next month. I’ve listened to the stories of my Pastor-colleagues and friends from the islands tell the stories of their places and people, of resiliency and despair, of destruction and hope. And now that our mission teams are on the ground, accompanying a part of the family of God in the reconstruction work that will stretch on for years, they are seeing those same realities, too.
The Building Puentes initiative in partnership with the Caribbean Synod, the Metropolitan Washington, D.C. Synod, and our Delaware-Maryland Synod is our commitment to “building bridges” across what seems a significant breach in our country and in the church; it isn’t a rigid prescription, but a loose road-map for us to better hear the voices of our Caribbean Synod siblings and to gather our resources to respond to voiced needs, rather than perceived needs.
And when we talk about resources, we’re certainly talking about money, but we also need to be talking about spiritual and prayer resources, the time and talent resources we have to accompany one another, and our call in Christ to bear one another’s burdens. Still, those bridges cannot be built on the exchange of checks, but on a commitment to being together on a journey of recovery that doesn’t have a finish line anywhere in sight. Thus, we’re on the ground together, working alongside one another; we’re listening to one another’s stories; we’re recognizing that Christ is standing in the chasm and the chaos, bidding us be a part of repairing the breach.
As we approach the solemn anniversary of Maria’s landfall in the islands, we do so with compassion for those who are experiencing the reminder of how much they lost and a renewed commitment to share that loss as we rebuild relationships – and physical infrastructure – together. Mayor Carmen Cruz, of San Juan, said that Hurricane Maria opened Puerto Rican eyes “to our inequity – and our inequality,” thus exposing the breach that we are called to step into as we accompany often-forgotten fellow citizens, and an often-forgotten part of our church, into the future.
Building Puentes is a part of our call and our responsibility as the body of Christ, to which I invite us all, let us attend.
Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly; your vindicator shall go before you, the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard. Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am. If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday. The Lord will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail. Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in. –Isaiah 58:8-12
The following is a reflection from Sani Rulis de Barr, 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.What does devotion mean to me … interesting question because this mission trip is right in the middle of the Jewish High Holy days – the ten days beginning with the Jewish New Year (Rosh Hashanah) and ending with the Day of Atonement ( Yom Kippur) – and I am celebrating in the form of community service on my favorite island, Puerto Rico, with an amazing group of mostly Lutherans.
But why? Why here?
My mom died on August 2, 2017 and my dad this year on February 20. My parents wishes were to donate their bodies to science, no ashes to be returned, no funeral, nada! I struggled with this wish, as traditionally we bury and have a funeral or a memorial service.
So how do I find closure? Interesting question. I have struggled with this because there were too many times I got angry at my folks for their wishes, thinking, “How selfish!” But then again, it is their choice, the living will have their memories.
A little over a week ago on the Facebook group for the Highlandtown neighborhood, Pastor Mark posted about a mission trip to Puerto Rico for the synod, help was needed help from the devastation last year by Hurricane Maria. I had just early retired (9/6/18) and this post pulled at my heart. I immediately said I wanted to help and how? I called my husband who said, “Go,” and to please come back in one piece.
After Hurricane Katrina, I went down to New Orleans and Saint Bernard Parrish to help rebuild houses, listen to people’s stories and witness the destruction.
So I end this with one of my favorite Jewish prayers, Oseh Shalom:
Oseh shalom bimromav
Hu ya’aseh shalom aleinu
V’al kol Yisrael
(from the Hebrew liturgy)
He who makes peace in high places
He will make peace for us
And for all Israel
And let us say, Amen.
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.