BUILDING PUENTES: FOUND

The following is a reflection from Meg Blodgett, a young adult from Baltimore (Maryland), another 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, 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. A few of them will be reflecting on their experiences, and we will share them here on our blog.

“The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.” -Gandhi

I stared at this quote found in a chapter of the book I was reading after taking my seat on the crowded plane heading towards San Juan, Puerto Rico on Sunday, July 21st. I had been up since 5 a.m. and was excited to start my trip. For the next two weeks, I would be living at a Lutheran camp in Dorado where I would be serving the people of Puerto Rico, working beside them to help rebuild their communities after the damage caused by Hurricane Irma & Maria in the fall of 2017. I would be joined by as many as 60 other volunteers in our mission to provide support and explore this beautiful island together.

As the boarding process completed and the airplane began our ascent towards our destination, I continued to ponder the experiences that I was bound to have during this trip; my first extended mission trip. Gandhi said that we figure out who we are and what we want best when we help others. I desperately wanted to figure out who I was and what I wanted in my life and was hoping that this trip would provide me with the clarity that I needed to get some answers to my questions. How do I know who I am and what I’m meant to do? I’ve been waiting for this trip for nine months and, selfishly, am glad that it came at an important time in my life … a time of transition.

As a young adult, change is inevitable and constant. For the last few months, I have felt that I have been going through this change and am unsure where my life is leading me. Do I go back to school to get my Master’s Degree? Do I move to that one city I’ve been thinking about for months? Do I change careers? Am I happy with how my life is now? What do I need to do to be ready to make that big, life-changing decision?

With these questions and Gandhi’s famous quote in mind, I began my first service week in Puerto Rico. It was more than I could have ever hoped for. I was able to meet so many amazing people at the Lutheran camp, through my work team to my bunk-mates (shout-out to you ladies for always making me laugh and putting up with my constant food puns) to the people of Puerto Rico that I helped with our service work.

As I continue through my second week of service, my experiences of this beautiful place have multiplied. I went surfing for the first time, overcame my fear of heights as I fixed roofs all week, became an expert on using power tools, learned how to find supplies and navigate independently through a Home Depot, went scuba-diving, and learned how to salsa dance.

The diverse culture and experiences that I have encountered in Puerto Rico have caused me to want to leave my comfort zone and try new experiences, meet new people, and take risks. As my time in Puerto Rico comes to an end, I have realized how important going on mission trips and serving others is to me. With Gandhi’s quote still in mind as I write this blog post, I can only imagine a future that involves my participation in mission trips and serving others. God has a plan for each and every one of us. Through prayer and participating in this trip, I believe I’ve found mine. I hope you have the courage and determination to find yours as well.

“All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.” -Gandalf, Lord of the Rings

BUILDING PUENTES: ONE BODY

The following is a reflection from Pastor Christine Parker, Interim Lead Pastor of Epiphany Lutheran Church, Baltimore (Maryland), another 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, 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. A few of them will be reflecting on their experiences, and we will share them here on our blog.

By lunch on our first day of work, I was so eager to figure out this family whose house we were working on. Are they related? How are they related? Their houses are connected. Are they housing one another? Is anyone living in the part that’s perpetually leaking? There was a rather damp bed that looked like it was in use. When they clearly can’t be in there, where do they go? I needed to define these people, which I had limited capacity to do because… no hablo mucho español.

My role, on the other hand, and the role of those I was working with, was clear. We are the helpers, the fixers, expecting nothing in return, except hopefully a really good story – tell me who you are, how you faired in the hurricanes, who has stayed, who has gone, who’s working, who’s not. As a pastor, I’m so used to people pouring out their stories. What a privileged position.

That night our devotion focused on 1 Corinthians 12, where Paul used an analogy of the body to talk about how each of us has different functions, different gifts, different roles, but together we make up the body of Christ. It’s a beautiful image. But, as I reflect on our time so far, it just feels too simplistic. Life is more complicated than that. Our roles are fluid, interconnected, ever-changing. Maria, the owner of the house, had to not just be helped, but provided encouragement, guidance, and homemade snacks in the afternoon. We needed Tormod to not just be the super-skilled brains behind the operation, but also our encourager, stepping back so others could step up. I needed to stop expecting people to pour out their stories to me, and let things enfold in such a way that everyone has dignity as the keeper of their own story.

As I sit here at breakfast, about to head out for another day of work, I still hope I’ll get more of their story. But, more, I hope that God might form us into a more complete body – complicated, messy, ever reforming, diverse. And you who are reading this from home or work, you too part a part of that more complete body, by your prayers, by informing yourself, by passing on the story of what God is up to here in Puerto Rico with “Building Puentes” – “building bridges” – for “if one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it” (1 Corinthians 12:26). Share in the sadness for a people eager for change and hope, having been largely forgotten in the states. Rejoice in the community that God is forming one nail at a time, one homemade chicken tender at a time, one story at a time.

BUILDING PUENTES: TOGETHER

The following is a reflection from Shelby Dannenfeldt, a member of Grace Lutheran Church, Westminster (Maryland), another 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, 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. A few of them will be reflecting on their experiences, and we will share them here on our blog.

I’ve now had the amazing opportunity to go on this trip, not once, but twice for two weeks. The first trip was last September and now again in July and August. I have learned and grown so much but the one thing I continually struggle with is letting others take care of me.

Mission work is my passion. It fills me with more happiness than you can imagine. I love taking care of others and advocating for them. That being said, I’ve never been one to let others take care of me. From a very young age, I have been on my own. I don’t ask for help and if I need it, I’ll figure out a way to do it on my own. It’s a struggle sometimes, but it’s all I’ve ever know.

The first week, on the first day, within the first few hours, I was with a group that was carrying sheet metal and plywood up the side of a mountain. There was a neighbor there helping us maneuver a piece of sheet metal onto the porch. Well, one wrong move later and I’m coming down approximately two feet on my ankle on the concrete floor. It turned out to be fine but in the moment, it hurt. I immediately take off my shoe and sock to see if it’s black and blue (clearly not a nursing major 🤷‍♀️). Everyone stops, someone goes to get ice, and the neighbor, who doesn’t speak any English, takes it, kneels down and gently takes my sweaty, stinky foot into his hands. He traces a cross with his finger across my ankle and then ever so gently caresses and moves my foot around gently rubbing ice on it.

I find it so moving and beautiful that a stranger I met only a few hours before, who doesn’t speak the same language as me, is so quick to take my bare foot into his hands and care for me with such gentleness and love.

In that moment, I realized that regardless of who you are or what language you speak or even if you don’t know each other, everyone needs help from time to time and it’s okay to open up and let people help you.

We really are Building Puentes (Bridges).
We really are Mejor (Better) Together.

BUILDING PUENTES: EMBRACING

The following is a reflection from Kelly Thurber, a member of Good Samaritan Lutheran Church, Lexington Park (Maryland), another 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, 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. A few of them will be reflecting on their experiences, and we will share them here on our blog.

On embracing new foods and new challenges:

As a child, I was well known for being one of the pickiest eaters ever! As I have traveled I have slowly learned to embrace just going for it and trying new foods; sometimes I like them and sometimes I don’t … and sometimes it’s fantastic!

Lutheran Social Services and the leadership team have definitely made an effort to have our mainland creature-comforts like Cheerios and peanut butter and jelly on hand, but they also offer cultural dishes and plenty of fresh fruit. While we were working at our site today the family offered us traditional rice, beans, and pork and even put out extra chairs for us on the porch so that we could sit. After power washing and scraping their concrete roof for several hours, the break for lunch was welcome, yet the show of hospitality was humbling. The food was simple but delicious! As we were leaving there was a large tree with small green groups of balls a little larger than grapes in their yard, and we were given a bag full that they picked for us. While some families back home may cultivate a garden and eat the produce, most people here are blessed with fruit-bearing jungle plants and trees surrounding their homes. As they explained how to eat these Quenapes, I momentarily hesitated, and then just bit in. They tasted like Jolly Ranchers! As a girl who loves her candy, it definitely hit the spot.

It can be so tempting just stick with what we know. The same town, the same school, the same church, the same routine, the same friends, the same hobbies or the same foods. This is not my first mission trip, but it is my first one with my husband and since having children, so it’s a different kind of excitement AND anxiety. We’re meeting new people from different places of all ages, as well as getting to know new friends who speak Spanish.

It would be easy to sit next to my husband at meals and work alongside him or hang out with the other nine people from our church who are with us … but that would not be giving God room to work in us to grow our faith through new experiences. I see God most in the moments when I am close to backing down in fear, yet push through.

Trying a new food may not seem like a big thing for most people, but I’m so glad I let myself experience something new. It was one small step to beginning to be open during our time here. While I know this week will bring many challenges, I can’t wait for God to meet me in my discomfort and reveal his power and might, using our group to serve others, and in turn, be served by others.

BUILDING PUENTES: CALLED

The following is a reflection from Kendra Hernandez, a member of Peace Lutheran Church, Las Cruces (New Mexico), another 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. A few of them will be reflecting on their experiences, and we will share them here on our blog.

“Sometimes the fact that there is nothing about you that makes you the right person to do something is exactly what God is looking for.” -Nadia Bolz-Weber

Now read that again. Slowly.

Every time I read this passage from Nadia’s Accidental Saints, it hits me in a whole new way. When I relate it to this mission trip, it sheds light on a few different things I have been anxious about. Leadership positions. Not having “enough” experience in a construction task. Not being proficient in Spanish enough to speak with the community that has so graciously welcomed me for the past week and the next week to come. Anxieties come in waves of feeling not like I am the right person to be doing something like this. Some people around me have also shared these insecurities, but it leads me to ask one simple question: “Why?”

Why did we sign up in the first place? At one point or another, we looked inside our hearts and souls and found a yearning to help this beloved colony of Puerto Rico. We signed up because at one point, we were ready to learn how to help and to get our hands dirty. My friends, if you still believe you have not helped, let me tell you this: YOU HAVE. Regardless of whether you are reading this in the comfort of your home or the comfort of your bunk bed here at camp, you are playing a part in this wave of love and generosity that we are actively sending to this island. Your actions are enough. Your love is enough. You are enough.

Here I am, Lord. Is it I, Lord?
I have heard you calling in the night
I will go, Lord, if you lead me
I will hold your people in my heart

We will hold your people in our hearts.

BUILDING PUENTES: CONNECTING

The following is a reflection from Meg Blodgett member of Calvary, Mt. Airy, another 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. A few of them will be reflecting on their experiences, and we will share them here on our blog.

 

After going to multiple ELCA youth gatherings over the past 10 years, I have always found my “God moments” during times of interaction with the people we are helping rather than the actual service work itself. Although the work is very important, I love being able to connect with the people who are in the areas that we are going to help. For 9 months, I have been waiting to come to Puerto Rico and work with the community here to re-build their homes and lives. This was my chance to actually re-build houses, roofs, fences, and immerse myself in a new culture for two weeks! Monday afternoon, I sat down with the 6 other people that I would be working with for the next week to help re-build a man named Alfonso’s porch and overhang. His house had been destroyed by Hurricane Maria. We shared expectations and prior experience that we could bring to the project. I told the group that I did not have much experience building things besides Lego sets but I was willing to learn! The next four days we would spend helping Alfonso fix his roof and learn his story.

Tuesday morning, my group arrives at the house and are greeted by Alfonso who was so eager to meet us all and show us his house. Case managers from Lutheran Social Services of Puerto Rico greeted us as well to help us facilitate communication with Alfonso and be a point of contact for our group if we needed help. Although there was a language barrier between Alfonso and I, I tried my best to use my three years of high school Spanish to be able to introduce myself and tell him how happy I was there to help. He understood my attempt to communicate and returned it by telling me “Thank you for coming” and shook my hand. The next 6 hours went by swiftly. At the end of the work day, we had built the foundation of the porch roofing addition and I had even drilled some of the hangers into the frame!

On the drive back to camp, I started to contemplate the topic of my blog post that I was supposed to write the next day. Turning to one of my teammates, I asked, “What if I interviewed Alfonso as part of my blog post?” She thought it was a great idea and we got to work thinking about some questions that I could ask him.

Wednesday morning, we arrived at Alfonso’s house at 8:00am, ready to work and I was eager to learn more about Alfonso’s life. I asked the case managers if they would ask Alfonso if I could interview him for the blog and if they were able to translate the conversation. Both were in agreement and Alfonso was ready to participate as well.

The following is a translation of the interview I had with Alfonso:

Meg: How many people lived in your house before the hurricane?

Alfonso: I lived there with my daughter and 3 grandchildren.

Meg: How old are you?

Alfonso: In October, I will be turning 85.

Meg: Do you have family living by?

Alfonso: Yes, my sister lives in the house right next to mine. I am staying there while my house is being rebuilt. She is having health issues so she is staying in the city in Dorado.

Meg: I know you are probably retired by now. What did you used to do for work?

Alfonso: I have been retired for 10 years. Before that, I worked as an assistant chef in hotel kitchens around the island.

Meg: Please tell me about your experience during the hurricane.

Alfonso: During the hurricane, I stayed at my sister’s house with her and one of my grandchildren. It was safer there. No one in my family was hurt during the hurricane.

Meg: What happened after the hurricane?

Alfonso: After the hurricane, I stayed at my sister’s. The roof was completely ripped off my house and everything inside had water damage. The electricity and plumbing were destroyed. My daughter and her children moved into the city to stay in government-funded housing. I didn’t want to go with them. I didn’t want to leave my house. I like it here.

Meg: How much did FEMA help?

Alfonso: They gave me some money for supplies to rebuild my roof. But it wasn’t enough. The hurricane destroyed all of my family’s clothes and appliances. I went out and bought wood for the roof but it wasn’t enough for the porch roof. I had volunteers help me rebuild the roof of my house.

Meg: How does building this roof going to help you and your future life in Puerto Rico?

Alfonso: A lot. The fence surrounding my porch was gone. Other volunteers helped me put it up. I live on a hill and spend most of my time on the porch. Now when my grandchildren move back in, we won’t worry about them falling and getting hurt.

Meg: What do you love about Puerto Rico?

Alfonso: I love the sports here. I love watching baseball and boxing. I like living where I am. I’ve been here for 70 years. It has a peaceful setting and landscape.

Meg: What do you want us to know about Puerto Rico?

Alfonso: The music. The music here is great and so moving. Take in the art of Puerto Rico. If I was able to take you somewhere, I would take you to a baseball game and to hear the music of my home.

End of the Interview.

Serving and mission work isn’t just about physical labor and building stuff…it’s about connecting with people and getting to know them and their unique stories. I hope you enjoyed learning more about Alfonso and his life in Puerto Rico as my team and I have this week.