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‘It’s hard work and it’s not always simple work, but it’s important work’

The Rev. Edwin González-Castillo, who directs Presbyterian Disaster Assistance, is the guest on ‘Between 2 Pulpits’

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

The Rev. Edwin González-Castillo, director of Presbyterian Disaster Assistance, preaches during closing worship at the Young Adult Advocacy Conference held in Louisville last fall. (Photo by Nell Herring)

LOUISVILLE — Given the opportunity to talk about the well-known and well-respected work of Presbyterian Disaster Assistance, the Rev. Edwin González-Castillo did not hesitate when he took to the Between 2 Pulpits microphone recently.

“Through our work,” PDA’s director told Between 2 Pulpits hosts the Rev. Dr. John Wilkinson and Katie Snyder, “we enable congregations and mission partners of the Presbyterian Church to witness the healing love of Christ through caring for communities that are affected by crisis and catastrophic events.” Listen to their 35-minute conversation here.

PDA is one of three ministries — the Presbyterian Hunger Program and the Presbyterian Committee on the Self-Development of People are the others — to receive support from One Great Hour of Sharing, which about 7,000 PC(USA) congregations participate in either on Palm Sunday or Easter Sunday.

PDA seeks out partners who know the community affected by an overseas disaster, whether it’s natural or human caused, according to González-Castillo. Domestically, PDA works closely with churches and mid councils. And “we don’t do that only for Presbyterians and Christians,” he said. “We serve the people who need assistance and care and need the love of the people of the church in moments of crisis.”

“It’s hard work and it’s not always simple work, but it’s important work,” said Wilkinson, director of Ministry Engagement and Support.

Katie Snyder

Snyder, Special Offerings’ project manager for digital fundraising and interpretations, asked González-Castillo to share some of PDA’s 2023 accomplishments.

“The amount of disasters we face seems to be increasing every year,” he noted, which “puts a toll on many organizations that are trying to provide assistance.” Last year, PDA responded in places near and far, including Indonesia, Mozambique, Afghanistan, the Dominican Republic, Ghana, Haiti, Honduras, Nepal — and across the United States, which thankfully had a relatively quiet wildfire season.

Among the organizations PDA has worked alongside PHP to strengthen is the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, a worker-based human rights organization that supports Florida farmworkers. Over the past several years, storms and floods have wiped out many farmworkers’ modest housing. “One thing we mention a lot is when disasters happen, they become apocalyptic events,” González-Castillo said. “It brings up the notion of the apocalypse in the Bible, but it’s more in the sense of revealing things. Disasters tend to reveal things that are there but are sometimes unseen.”

Farmworkers in Florida “are providing food for our tables, but they’re living in unsanitary, poor conditions. After a disaster, they lose their home and they have to start again,” he said. Through the Immokalee Fair Housing Alliance, “we were able to work on grants to build homes for families to live in a safe home” that can withstand hurricane-force winds. “They are affordable homes with better access to schools and health care. We visited with people in the community and saw how grateful they were for this project.”

Similarly, PDA representatives recently returned from Inda, “an overwhelming experience that touched the core of our hearts,” González-Castillo said. The group met with people affected by floods and cyclones, many of them Dalit or members of tribal communities who showed PDA staff the cyclone-resistant homes it had helped to fund. Villagers also reported on a more recent problem: The local rat population had grown so fast that cobras were turning out in alarming numbers to feed on the rats. “Now they have rat traps, and they feel safer from both disasters and the snakes in their backyards,” González-Castillo said.

“It’s not likely many of us will get to India or the parts of Florida where the Immokalee workers are,” Wilkinson said. “But what I like to remember is when we give to One Great Hour of Sharing or other Special Offerings, not only does our money go to those places, but Edwin and his colleagues are our representatives, our partners. We believe in a connectional church, and that’s more than just words.”

The Rev. Dr. John Wilkinson

During Lent, Wilkinson noted, we often use words like “incarnation” and “embodying,” and “this is one way we can make these commitments manifest. It gives me comfort and hope to know we’re represented in these places where there’s great human need. There are ways we can support that wherever we are, and can make a difference.”

González-Castillo said people interested in volunteering to work at a PDA host site can learn more here. “We have relationships that provide places for volunteers to serve and be able to help in the community,” he said. “There is a place for you to stay and there are resources for you to come and serve in those places.”

In addition, PDA is recruiting additional members of its National Response Team, which is deployed to a disaster when requested by a presbytery. An online informational meeting is set for 7 p.m. Eastern Time on April 1. Register here.

“You tend to be the first ones on the ground and the last to leave,” Snyder told González-Castillo. “Even when it’s outside the news cycle, [a disaster] still affects people’s lives.”

“Through the donations and resources we receive, we try to extend our presence in a place for more than just the initial phase of the response,” González-Castillo replied. “Even after years, PDA continues to be there in support” in places like González-Castillo’s native Puerto Rico, where Hurricane Maria killed nearly 3,000 people in 2017. “It goes back to creating relationships in those communities.”

“Between 2 Pulpits” is a podcast produced by Special Offerings and the Presbyterian Giving Catalog.

He predicted it will take up to seven years to rebuild historic Lahaina, Maui, following last year’s wind-driven wildfires. It’ll take several years until “they go back to some sense of normality” there as well, González-Castillo said.

Asked about his hope for the church, González-Castillo said he was blessed to take part in the Matthew 25 Summit in January and “see the presence of so many people involved in making change. That gave me hope.”

Other events, including last fall’s Young Adult Advocacy Conference put on by the Office of Public Witness, “gives me hope that the church is still alive, is present, and still aiming to share not only the message of Christ but also Christ’s love to the community. That is my hope — that we continue to not only preach the word, but live the word in the world we live in. To God be the glory.”

Hear other editions of the “Between 2 Pulpits” podcast here.

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