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Savannah church makes connections in Puerto Rico

 

Island still has many needs eight months after Hurricane Maria

By Rick Jones | Presbyterian News Service

Hurricane Maria left devastation across Puerto Rico. Photo by Rick Jones

LOUISVILLE – Power comes and goes in parts of Puerto Rico that are still recovering from last fall’s devastating Hurricane Maria. While electricity and running water are slowly coming back to communities across the island, the long list of repairs, updates and recovery will keep volunteers and disaster officials busy for years.hurri

Presbyterian Disaster Assistance has been working closely with presbyteries and synods on the island to support volunteer work projects and training. As of May, PDA has disbursed more than $1.5 million in grants. Jim Kirk, PDA’s associate for national disaster response, says that as many as eight emergency grants have been approved to all three presbyteries and the synod to help communities impacted by the hurricane.

“PDA will work with our Presbyterian leadership in Puerto Rico to discern how remaining Hurricane Maria funds can be best leveraged to help the most people,” said Kirk.

Kirk and PDA officials have been in Puerto Rico this week to meet with church leaders on the recovery effort.

“The three presbyteries and synod have expressed gratitude for the support of the larger church. In addition to the support of the denomination through PDA, many congregations and mid councils have reached out to support the response and recovery efforts,” he said. “The recovery needs will be many and will last for years. During this trip, the church’s commitment to stay for the long term was well received.”

In addition to working with partners and volunteers to bring work teams to the area, PDA will provide training and retreat opportunities for churches in coordination with Puerto Rico’s three presbyteries.

Volunteers from First Presbyterian Church of Savannah, Georgia, recently spent a week in San Juan working with local churches on recovery needs. Pastor Stephen Williams and five church members were hosted by Monte Flores Presbyterian Church.

“They organized activities with several other Presbyterian churches. Each day, we would work at a different church, meeting with members, enjoying table fellowship with them. Some of the tasks were typical scraping and painting and one day, we ambitiously replaced part of a flat metal roof and that was a challenge,” said Williams. “In the evening, church members would provide wonderful meals and we would have conversations about how people fared during and after the hurricane.”

Despite the hospitality, Williams says churches are getting discouraged.

“There’s understandable concern that the mainland of the United States has not responded as energetically as they should or could. So, there’s disappointment with that,” he said. “But they’re also showing how church people have come together in very strong ways.”

Among the churches Williams and his team visited was Hugh O’Neill Memorial Presbyterian Church in old San Juan.

“The historic church only has 19 members and it had tarps flapping in the wind as they had been put up six months ago and not touched since. The kitchen had water damage and things had not been removed from the kitchen,” said Williams. “In one day, we made substantial progress. But they have challenges that many churches have — dwindling membership, it’s not easily accessible and they don’t have people living nearby. In other churches we visited, we saw members that were proud of their churches and saw the vibrancy of community life.”

Williams says he plans to send another group of volunteers back to Puerto Rico in six months and hopes it is the beginning of a long and productive relationship.

“They are tremendously resilient and their Christian faith is very important to them and it’s lived out daily,” said Williams. “This church that I serve has gone on all kinds of mission trips — Cameroon, Mexico and Nicaragua. But Puerto Rico is so feasible and not that far away. We can come and go, build relationships, send groups and invite some of them to Savannah to strengthen those ties.”

In late 2017, PDA conducted a leadership solidarity visit to churches as well as the Seminario Evangélico de Puerto Rico. The team produced the following video:

To read the latest report about PDA’s response in Puerto Rico, click here.

To support recovery efforts in Puerto Rico, click here. You’ll be taken to the PC(USA) website to donate securely and quickly.

If you prefer to mail a check (please write “DR000194-Puerto Rico” on the memo line), you may send it to:

Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)
P.O. Box 643700
Pittsburgh, PA 15264-3700


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