Building Puentes: Finding a family

The following is a reflection from Taylor Binnix, 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.

Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. -1 John 4:7

I came to Puerto Rico seeking community with friends and neighbors from the Baltimore area.

For the next six days, these 20+ people are my family. We will live, work, and play together. We will succeed together; we will fail together. We will laugh together; we will cry together. We will annoy each other; we will enjoy each other. It’s the end of day one, and I can already see how each of us is falling into our familial roles. We didn’t know each other until 48 hours ago, but already, I am closer to these folks than to most of the people I encounter on a regular basis. Here are some of the highlights from our travel day, and day one of living, working, and playing together, succeeding, failing, laughing, crying, annoying, and enjoying each other as family:

T is the talented brother who can identify the type of a specific screw simply based on its height and sheen. He is a strategist, a maker, and a workman. He is a loving supporter of others, and an eager doer.

K is the sweet sister who loves making other people laugh. She loves deeply, gives selflessly, and is ready for anything.

P is the silly uncle who is always cracking jokes. He likes sleeping on firm pillows at night and drinking cold mountain dew in the mornings. He is thoughtful towards others, and a strong-willed contributor.

S is the aunt who is always telling great stories. With her own life experience as the best teacher, she knows her strengths and she is able to bring out the best in others.

M is the quiet cousin. She is observant and intelligent, an endless fount of knowledge. Helpful on the job site and attentive in conversation, she is sharp, quick, and kind.

G is the cousin who is compassionate towards all and relates well to everyone she encounters. She jumps in wherever she is needed to offer strength, encouragement, and support.

R is the steadfast father. He leads by example; whether delivering countless wheelbarrow loads or drying the kitchen dishes, he doesn’t take himself too seriously, and yet, he is wise beyond his years.

D is the mother who makes sure that everyone’s needs are attended. She offers a listening ear, sage advice, and a willing ride to run errands and keep everyone safe.

1 John 4:7-21 reminds us how to emulate the love that God has for us in our love for our own families. With service as our focus, connection as our priority, and an amalgamation of skillsets, these folks have shown me how to love one another as God loved us. Even in this short time, we have loved each other and continue to love each other without fear, reprehension, or judgment for our differences, and with kindness, openness, and willing hearts to learn and grow in our similarities.

I came to Puerto Rico seeking community, and I found a family.

 

Building Puentes

Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning. –Psalm 30:5

This past week I’ve found myself quietly weeping. The circumstances that I found myself in felt completely overwhelming, threatening the kind of grief that can swallow one up and exact a creeping depression on one’s life and ministry.

Last week, Arwyn and I spent 60 hours making a visit to our sisters and brothers in the Caribbean Synod. You might remember that our synod received a special offering to support our friends in Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands in the aftermath of Hurricanes Irma and Maria, an offering that totaled some $91,000.00. The purpose of my visit was to see the recovery work that is happening and to, at least ceremonially, present your gift simply by being present to listen to the pastors of the synod – and their bishop – debrief their own circumstances and tell the story of their recovery – spiritual and physical.

Those conversations took place against the backdrop of what I had already seen for myself. In the cities, fully a quarter to a third of the homes and businesses still lack a roof; the now, all-too-familiar blue tarp still flaps in the wind, guarding the fragility of what’s below. In the backcountry, the blue tarps cover two-thirds to three-quarters of the homes and businesses. There are still properties that are leveled, in place – that look like a jumbled mess of building materials – where there just wasn’t the money nor the wherewithal to rebuild. Water and electricity are running – in most places – but they are not yet dependable in any places, and cut out periodically and for unpredictable periods of time. The demarcation between the “haves” and the “have-nots” is often a generator to mitigate the unpredictable electrical outages and either a stash of bottled water or a water purification system in case water becomes a problem, as well. Mold seems to be everywhere and the “high water marks” on homes and schools and businesses are still a visible reminder of the long road of recovery that is still ahead.

The pastors of the synod addressed their stories one to another while Bishop Lozada of the Caribbean Synod, Bishop Graham of the Metropolitan Washington, D.C. Synod and I were invited to listen – and that’s when the tears started to gather. Story after story, in Spanish and in English, of pastors who lost everything. One pastor from St. Croix arrived at the retreat with the three outfits he still has left. Another has been living in their damaged church building because the parsonage is uninhabitable. Story after story of pastors whose congregations were decimated by death, exodus to the mainland, and the loss of offerings when people lost their jobs, their homes – everything. Many – most – of the pastors are, or have become, bi-vocational to support their ministries. In some cases they are pastoring multiple congregations. And the congregations are clearinghouses for cleaning supplies, food, and donated building materials. The emotional and physical fatigue in the room was palpable, the tears ran freely – story-teller and listener, alike.

The stories shared a few commonalities, apart from loss, too. There was an indomitable spirit of hope. Folks are in this for the long haul and believe that a better day is coming. There was an understanding of being in this together, that partnership across the synod – and the synods of the ELCA, as well as ecumenical partnership – was more reliable than governmental intervention. And, perhaps the most overwhelming commonality was gratitude. Even in the devastating recitations of loss, there was a genuine gratitude for all that they still had – life, family, support from the mainland, good neighbors, and most of all faith. These good pastors, who have sacrificed so much for their ministry in the face of these horrifying, almost third-world circumstances, each one of them gave powerful and persuasive testimony to how Jesus Christ has been in this with them, shown forth by the goodness of others to them, and is changing this little corner of the world through them. Coffee and conversation took on a sacramental quality as the bishops listened and the room became infused with the presence of the Lord.

But hear me, friends. We cannot simply believe that a generous offering and a spiritual reading of these circumstances are the end of our responsibility to our sisters and brothers in the Caribbean Synod. There is much work to do – and all of us are needed to share in the rebuilding.

Under the title Building Puentes (Building Bridges), the three bishops are working together to accompany our sisters and brothers in the Caribbean Synod as the rebuilding continues.

 

What’s been accomplished:

  • Financial resources have been gathered from Delaware-Maryland and Metro DC;
  • a framework for administering those resources has been established and is being administered by the Metro DC Synod until such time as it can be done in the Caribbean Synod;
  • work groups from Metro DC and our joint College Park campus ministry have been on the ground, assisting; and
  • the bishops have visited and provided a respite and renewal retreat for all the Caribbean Synod’s pastors.

 

What’s happening now:

  • Delaware-Maryland is about to send two work groups in September, led by Pastor Mark Parker (Breath of God, Highlandtown), assisted by Synod Treasurer San Dee Koons (Hope, Middleborough);
  • bishops will return for the installation of the new synodical bishop in October as a tangible sign of support;
  • rostered ministers are invited to come and learn about the synod, its relief efforts and to provide some “relief preaching” this coming April – details are coming, soon; and
  • work groups will go again next summer.

 

What immediate needs are still in front of us:

  • One of the synod’s feeding ministries had its board president die in the hurricanes, its treasurer died four months ago as a result of injuries in the hurricanes, and its secretary left for better work on the mainland. The remaining board member, the vice president, is a retired English-speaking pastor who desperately needs assistance in getting the financial house in order and dealing with non-compliances issues with the IRS. Is there someone with some financial expertise who might be able to spend a week in the Virgin Islands helping to put this ministry back together even as they are feeding thousands?
  • One of the synod’s pastors, ordained 49 years, lost all of his books in the hurricanes and desperately misses his Barclay’s commentaries. Is there a pastor or congregation that has that set collecting dust on the shelves who would be willing to ship them to our friend?
  • Another of the synod’s pastors has lost his Harpers Commentary, Harpers Bible Dictionary, his basic Luther books, etc. Is there someone who might pack a box of basic theological and biblical books to help accompany him as he rebuilds his library?

 

This conversation is ongoing and we are committed to accompany and support our sisters and brothers in the long-term. I will report to you the opportunities and needs as they arise, and I know that God will act through us for the sake of our neighbor.

My tears still flow as I think not only of these circumstances, but also of the great love that our Caribbean Synod sisters and brothers showed for us when, as Arwyn and I prepared to leave, they laid hands on us and prayed in thanksgiving for all of you – for us, and our partnership.

Weeping continues here and in the Caribbean, but glad news – joy comes!  ¡Gracias a Dios!

I will extol you, O Lord, for you have drawn me up, and did not let my foes rejoice over me. O Lord my God, I cried to you for help, and you have healed me. O Lord, you brought up my soul from Sheol, restored me to life from among those gone down to the Pit. Sing praises to the Lord, O you his faithful ones, and give thanks to his holy name. For his anger is but for a moment; his favor is for a lifetime. Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning. As for me, I said in my prosperity, “I shall never be moved.” By your favor, O Lord, you had established me as a strong mountain; you hid your face; I was dismayed. To you, O Lord, I cried, and to the Lord I made supplication: “What profit is there in my death, if I go down to the Pit? Will the dust praise you? Will it tell of your faithfulness? Hear, O Lord, and be gracious to me! O Lord, be my helper!” You have turned my mourning into dancing; you have taken off my sackcloth and clothed me with joy, so that my soul may praise you and not be silent. O Lord my God, I will give thanks to you forever. –Psalm 30