Diane and I had the privilege of serving for two weeks in Puerto Rico as part of a rebuilding team after Hurricane Maria. We were part of a group led by Pastor Mark Palmer that consisted of people from our DC synod and the Baltimore Maryland synod ranging in age from 14 to 70. While most people came for one week, we were lucky enough to attended for two and be able to welcome the larger group from Good Sam when they came on the second week.
The state of the island is a mix bag two years after the hurricanes. People’s homes seemed to be four distinct categories. Those with resources had their homes, neighborhoods and infrastructure repaired and back to normal. Those that had the means to fill out the correct forms and the knowledge of where to ask for help have their homes livable (windows and roofs restored). These neighborhoods also had basic infrastructure, but the roads were still damaged and the electricity unreliable. The third category would be those that were unable to repair their damaged homes and have not returned to them. This was most prominent in the neighborhoods that we worked in and by a casual estimate looks to be about a quarter of the homes. The fourth group is where we were trying to help through the auspices of Puerto Rico Lutheran Social Services. For the most part the people we served did not have the resources to fend for themselves, lacked family that could help, or didn’t know where to begin to get help within the bureaucracy that is needed in a response of this magnitude. The three houses my team worked on included a husband and wife team who were dealing with kidney failure and dementia, an older man that was blind and very hard of hearing and another coming off of treatment for cancer. We were lucky enough to form relationships with these homeowners and our counterparts in LSS (Lutheran Social Services). In many cases it was difficult to speak to one another due to the language barrier (despite being part of the United States, Spanish is the predominant language spoken on the island), but small acts of kindness on their part made us feel welcome and befriended. One homeowner brought us bananas from their tree in the backyard, another shared soda or the most notable for me, the sister in law of the blind man gathered us in a circle before we left home at project completion and said a long prayer for us in Spanish.
While building houses and relationships with our Puerto Rican hosts was the predominant goal of our trip, we were also able to build relationship bridges with the synod and with the participants of this effort. The group from Good Sam, although being one of the larger contingents, was constantly working and socializing outside of ourselves. Some were group leads, some were drivers and others led some of the nightly devotionals. It was good to see our little church become so involved with bettering our relationships with those outside our community.
We, along with all the other volunteers stayed at Campamento Luterano Eduardo Roig, which used to be used as a Lutheran summer camp before the hurricanes. Everyone slept in bunk house arrangements in either 16, 8 or 4 person rooms. We were fed breakfast and most dinners at camp and the food made me feel like I was back at boy scout camp. The shared showers had a propensity to cut out to a trickle the minute you got shampoo on your head. The work was difficult, almost always dirty and by the end of the day we were all pretty tired. It was a great experience. It turned out not to be an experience to endure or survive but one in which you could learn a sense of compassion in which respect and honor must be key components. We learned that even through their struggle, the people that we met were warm and welcoming and enjoyed life.