BUILDING PUENTES: GRATEFUL

The following is a reflection from Sharon Stromberg from Frederick, 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.

Tuesday was our first day on our work sites. When I talked to people this evening, I heard all kinds of stories. Some groups experienced logistical challenges with tools or supplies. Others learned the joys of concrete construction: jackhammering out old windows; power-washing, sealing, and priming flat roofs.

Here are some reflections on our day:

  • Our group had a very special “God moment.” We needed to clear brush away from a doorway, but didn’t have any tools that would do the job. Then someone noticed a rather rusty machete lying on the ground nearby. It proved to be quite sharp and exactly what we needed.
  • A couple of our youth made friends with the 5-year-old who lived in the home where we were working. Despite the fact that he spoke no English at all, they wound up playing with him for quite some time. We could tell that it really made his day. I’m sure he will never forget us.
  • Several ladies in our group were busy hauling 4×8 plywood sheets up the 55+ steps to our work site. A bunch of pre-teen kids came by on their way back from a VBS program. They felt sorry for us working so hard and pitched in to help finish the job. We were very grateful!
  • The home we worked on belongs to a gentleman who is bed-ridden due to a spinal injury from an auto accident. He enjoyed talking to the members of our crew (in very good English), and expressed his gratitude over and over.
  • Our homeowner complained about the iguanas ruining the crop on his fruit trees. He explained, they like to eat papayas and mangoes, but they don’t like starfruit. Next thing we knew, he was presenting us with two full bags of starfruit that he’d picked for us. It was delicious! We also got to try quenepa, another unusual tropical fruit.
  • Power-washing a roof is one of the more fun jobs on a hot, sunny day.

We’d like to give a special shout-out to the LSS staff and case managers who accompanied us to each job site. And of course to the staff of Campamento Luterano Dr. Eduardo Roig who are taking good care of us.

BUILDING PUENTES: FINDING PLACE

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.

BUILDING PUENTES: ARRIVING

The following is a reflection from Victoria Broderick, Ellicott City, 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 will reflect on their experiences, and we will share them here on our blog.

 After arriving Sunday night to the camp site, we got our assigned bunk houses for the week and then went to a pizza place nearby for dinner. So good! And great view of a rainbow from the porch. After coming back to the campsite, Mark led devotions and worship in which we also spoke to each other about one thing that we brought with us as well as one thing we left at home.

Monday we couldn’t start at our construction sites because of the mass protests occurring in San Juan, therefore spent the morning getting familiar with others working at our construction site as well as figuring out what sort of activities we’d be doing. After meeting with my group I was pleased to know that I was not the only one that was nervous about the construction tasks needed and was glad that I had some experience with using a power washer before.

We then had some free time for the day so our group of 57 people split up to travel to 4 different beaches in the area. We were amazed by how beautiful the water was and how clear compared to the beaches back home. A few of us even walked up to the flag in that picture and contemplated cliff diving. We decided not to since we weren’t sure how deep the water was. The clouds started rolling in and we could see lightning in the distance so decided to head back around 3pm. Once back at the camp site, we had some free time so a few of us got in the pool which I was amazed by how warm the water still was!
On days like these we’re reminded to find joy in the ordinary and remain flexible…we weren’t expecting to not be able to start working, but saw this circumstance as a way to respect those native to Puerto Rico in the midst of this historic moment and movement.

“Joy is not a constant. It comes to us in moments—often ordinary moments. Sometimes we miss out in the bursts of joy because we’re too busy chasing down extraordinary moments. Other times we’re so afraid of the dark that we don’t dare let ourselves enjoy the light.” -Brene Brown

When you pass through the waters, I will be with you

by Bishop Bill Gohl

When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior. – Isaiah 43:2-3

I spent this last week in the Caribbean Synod as part of the ongoing work of our Building Puentes Initiative, in partnership with that synod, the Metropolitan Washington, D.C. Synod and our Delaware-Maryland Synod. I had the opportunity to dive deeply into the ongoing recovery efforts of the islands, churches, and residents; to see the impact that your financial partnership and sweat-equity is making in the life of the Caribbean Synod, across Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands.

But, friends, there’s still a long way to go…

The church where I preached on Sunday, Principe de Paz, still has a tarp covering part of its roof and just in the last two weeks was able to repair a significant hole in the roof over the baptismal font.

By El Yunque National Forest, there are homes that were completely destroyed by Hurricane Maria, still sitting like broken erector sets in heaps, between restored homes.

Some of our ELCA pastor colleagues in the Caribbean Synod do not have habitable homes, and among those who do, there are still some without working kitchen appliances – for two years.

There are high water marks from the storm on some buildings even while others are restored.

There are traffic signals that have not worked in two years.

Even in downtown Old San Juan, the tourist center of Puerto Rico, there are still intermittent power outages because the infrastructure has not been restored (it happed to me on an elevator).

Congregations across the synod are experiencing the devastating loss of families who evacuated to the mainland – and didn’t return; buildings that are still in disrepair and pastors working for well-below-poverty-level pay.

Congress is back in session seeking to reach an agreement on new disaster relief funds for Puerto Rico and other jurisdictions hit by recent natural disasters. Since the new year, the Senate has failed to agree on the House-passed disaster relief bill in mid-January. The implications of this impasse are huge, tangible and easily seen when you visit. On a much larger scale, it reminds me of the garbage piles that collect on the National Mall when there is a government shut-down; only for these siblings in Christ, it’s been two years of burdens collecting with very little sense of hopeful resolution in sight.

The next stages of Building Puentes will be to continue our support and accompaniment of the rostered ministers of the Caribbean Synod and to learn from their ministry and experiences; to continue our work trip partnerships (which are completely oversubscribed for this summer); and next, to match congregations in the Caribbean Synod with counterparts in Metropolitan Washington, D.C. and Delaware-Maryland to forge partnerships, leverage cultural differences for deeper relationships with Christ and the Church, and build real bridges of understanding among us.

It was a privilege to represent our Delaware-Maryland Synod in the Caribbean Synod last week. I am committed to seeing us grow into the fullness of these partnerships and advocating for our siblings whose suffering is hidden, and largely forgotten. I saw the risen Christ, sometimes even in his wounds, among a resilient and hopeful people. I was strengthened in my faith, even when overwhelming doubts threatened to overtake me.

But now thus says the Lord, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior. I give Egypt as your ransom, Ethiopia and Seba in exchange for you. Because you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you, I give people in return for you, nations in exchange for your life. Do not fear, for I am with you; I will bring your offspring from the east, and from the west I will gather you; I will say to the north, “Give them up,” and to the south, “Do not withhold; bring my sons from far away and my daughters from the end of the earth— everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made.” – Isaiah 43:1-7

Connectedness: Building Puentes!

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

Building Puentes: Finding home

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.