Puerto Rican bishop: ‘This is a catastrophe’

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A group of members and pastors from Methodist churches in the San Juan area form a human chain to unload supplies at the Utuado church in central Puerto Rico. The

A group of members and pastors from Methodist churches in the San Juan area form a human chain to unload supplies at the Utuado church in central Puerto Rico. The "brigade" drove into the area to help meet the needs of people who have not been reached by FEMA or federal aid organizations. Photo by the Rev. Gustavo Vasquez, UMNS.


By the Rev. Gustavo Vasquez and Linda Bloom
Oct. 5, 2017 | UMNS

The Methodist Church of Puerto Rico has activated an emergency strategy to respond to community needs following Hurricane Maria.

“My definition of the situation is the same as FEMA’s and other government entities,” Bishop Hector Ortiz wrote in an Oct. 4 letter explaining the church’s initial plans. “They have all said that ‘this is a catastrophe.’”

While the Puerto Rican church has the support of the United Methodist Committee on Relief, resources are limited for now. “The complexity of this catastrophe has delayed the support that we need,” the bishop said in the letter. “We have been out of power, out of communication, and many of the local routes are blocked or destroyed. It has been a big obstacle to complete an evaluation of the situation around our churches.”

Posts and power lines remain damaged following Hurricane Maria. Authorities have announced that restoration of power could take more than six months. So far, only 7% of Puerto Rico's power has been restored. Photo by the Rev. Gustavo Vasquez, UMNS.


Assistance will be needed to provide a complete assessment of the post-Maria situation, Ortiz said, but Puerto Rican Methodist leaders are doing what they can. He encouraged donations to UMCOR and the Puerto Rican church’s social holiness agency to help buy needed supplies, including water, food, batteries, solar light bulbs and radios.

“We have been using our financial reserves to help people in need around our churches,” he wrote. “We have been taking different initiatives to help our neighboring communities. We opened a church in the southeast (where the hurricane made landfall) as a collection center to prepare food packs for people who are blocked off and out of food.”

In the poor suburban neighborhood of Barrio Obrero near San Juan, for example, a food pantry at San Pablo Methodist Church has served some 5,000 meals to the community, the bishop said.

Methodists distributed 200 bags of prepared food with donations and support from the Methodist Church of Puerto Rico and its ministry of social sanctity. Over 2,700 water packages donated by a community organization were distributed as well. Photo by the Rev. Gustavo Vasquez, UMNS.


Church volunteers also ventured far from San Juan. On Oct. 4, a group of Methodist youth, pastors and lay people from the metropolitan area visited Jayuya and Utuado in central Puerto Rico.

The brigade, organized by Puerto Nuevo Methodist Church and led by Ortiz, prepared about 200 food packages to help mitigate the growing need for water and food in those communities, which were hit hard by Hurricane Maria.

The Rev. Virna Solis, pastor of the Puerto Nuevo congregation, said that the task of distributing food and water "has been going on in sectors such as Guaynabo, Patillas, Villas del Sol and this community. I would say that we have distributed almost 500 packages of food, including what we have taken to Jayuya and Utuado. "

Water and food are the most pressing needs of families living in the Jayuya area. Photo by the Rev. Gustavo Vasquez, UMNS.


Senior residents of Jayuya receive water and food as part of the Methodist brigade's outreach. Photo by the Rev. Gustavo Vasquez, UMNS.

For her, the “most satisfying” aspect has been the number of people involved in the work. “About 50 people helped us make purchases, prepare packages and distribute them with donations we receive from members of our congregation and other churches that also participate,” Solis said.

At Wenceslao Marrero Methodist Church in Mameyes in the Jayuya area, the group was welcomed by the Rev. Gladis Rivera, pastor of the church and administrator of the Methodist camp.


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United Methodists wishing to help can make donations directly through UMCOR’s Domestic Disaster Response Advance #901670.

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Rivera spoke of several deaths related to the earthquake, including her ex-husband. She lamented the loss of housing and crops, the destruction of the electric grid and communications systems and the growing shortages of food and water.

"We are waiting for the army’s help in Mameyes,” she said, noting that they hadn’t seen much of an official presence yet. Besides food and water, other urgent needs include child and adult diapers and flashlight batteries.

Rivera said she was happy to see the church bringing material aid and a word of encouragement to those who do not have the ability to move, such as the elderly.

In the midst of this difficult situation, the church has an important task ahead with the pastoral and spiritual care of the affected communities. "We have a faithful God who accompanies us and who tells us in His word that He will be with us every day until the end; a God who tells us that He will be with us even in the midst of the shortages we are experiencing,” she said. “This is not easy because there are people who have lost everything …”

One hundred food and water packages were delivered to El Buen Pastor Methodist Church in Utuado, where Pastor Jose Daniel García gave thanks and expressed pride in the Methodist Church of Puerto Rico.

Members of the brigade unite in prayer together with members of the Methodist Church of Utuado. Photo by the Rev. Gustavo Vasquez, UMNS.


“The reality is that we have felt helpless before the impossibility of having access to many basic necessities such as fuel, drinking water and food,” Garcia told the group. “We have seen a deployment, which I understand is the armed forces, bringing food and water by helicopter. However, we have not seen those supplies in the hands of the people, and that is where they are needed.”

Winds and water were the main causes of the damages that Utuado suffered with the passage of Hurricane Maria. “There are a number of houses affected, especially those made of wood with metal roofs, which were partially or totally destroyed. Although in our church we had minor damages, five of our families lost everything,” the pastor explained.

Garcia added that he and his church are trying to “to embrace, accompany and assist” isolated and affected communities. “We want this church to become a collection center to distribute essential supplies, and we are making contacts to obtain the necessary support. At this moment, people are hungry and thirsty and that is the main thing. We need food and water to offer them."

Jose Daniel García, pastor of El Buen Pastor Methodist Church in the town of Utuado, is unable to hold back tears as he thanks members of the Methodist Church of Puerto Rico for their support. The outreach effort resulted in more than a hundred packages of food and water being brought to the church. Photo by the Rev. Gustavo Vasquez, UMNS.


Ortiz is encouraging all local churches to meet on Sundays and weekdays to “maintain our spiritual connection” during the difficult recovery period after Maria.

“Our local churches have to be communities of hope,” he wrote. “The hope of the Gospel that is much more than optimism. The hope that comes from the participation in the construction of the new ‘mañana’ (tomorrow), when we can transform the reality that our people are living today. We are committed to that.

“The local church connection with their communities is the base of the spiritual energy,” the bishop said. “It moves us to serve, to help, and to support others. We need to maintain our spiritual strength to help the people of Puerto Rico to rebuild our island. The support has been coming, but it is not enough.”

Bishop Hector Ortiz speaks to members of the Methodist outreach brigade, who distributed food and water in the central area of ​​the country. Photo by the Rev. Gustavo Vasquez, UMNS.

The Rev. Gustavo Vasquez is the director of Hispanic/Latino Communications at United Methodist Communications. Bloom is the assistant news editor for United Methodist News Service and is based in New York. Follow her at https://twitter.com/umcscribe or contact her at 615-742-5470 or [email protected]. To read more United Methodist news, subscribe to the free Daily or Weekly Digests

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