Relief for Puerto Rico

11/03/2017 .
Clayton Heilman  .  Storyteller

The group sat in a circle. The sun shone through the windows, but a dark cloud of uncertainty fouled the air. One by one, the pastors spoke, sharing their frustration, hopes, and prayers with Jillian, Mark, and David — a PEACE Relief team from Saddleback Church. This church they sat in was their meeting place, their rallying point to move forward after hurricanes ravaged the island of Puerto Rico.

The team’s goal was to assess the situation. Jillian wanted to bring back a clear picture of needs and next steps. David had known the local pastors and organized a meet-up in the town of Ciales. The drive from San Juan should have only taken an hour. Debris still lined most roads, and crowds of people have flooded into the city. It took the team over four hours to navigate the chaos.


After sunset that first night, the darkness that shrouded the city could almost be felt. More than a month after the hurricane, most of the island still sits without power. Basic public services remain at a standstill — and no timetable has been given for restoration. Debris and toxins had contaminated natural water springs, forcing relief workers to discourage residents from using the the local water.


Pastor Ezequiel was the first to open up. The high winds had ruined his church and home. The roof of his church and home were completely shorn off — dumping wood, wire, and debris everywhere. The missing roof on his house forced his family to live out of the only intact room on the lower level. The upstairs kitchen, now open to the night sky, couldn’t even be covered with a tarp. The team had accompanied Ezequiel to Home Depot, expecting to purchase supplies. They were met with empty shelves and signs that read, “We don’t have anything and we aren’t getting anything.” The employees must have tired of answering the same question. Jillian learned that political and logistical issues have trapped the needed supplies in the port. She didn’t understand how crucial supplies could be withheld.

Pastor Rafael shared how his church in Camuy had been buying up the limited supplies of food, diapers, water, and baby food at local grocery stores. His church members then organized into smaller teams to distribute the food and diapers to those in need living nearby. Because of the destruction many companies are closed. People are not able to work, which makes their situation even more desperate. The churches are doing everything they can to help those in need, but with a lack of resources they are hanging on — mostly by prayer.

 


Every one of the pastors around the circle knew of families leaving almost every day since the hurricane. Those who have family elsewhere are using them as a lifeline to move off the island. Parents had shared their frustration with unopened schools, and everyone was feeling the strain of losing power, water, and food. People don’t hear of anyone, anywhere recovering or rebuilding. The pastors are trying to be there for the people in their community, but they have so little hope to fuel themselves.

Though the schools have been temporarily shut down, the U.S. military is making use of the unoccupied space in the schoolyards as drop-off points for supplies. Helicopters make the rounds several times a day, flying in water and food for local residents. Jillian had seen the military helicopters dropping off supplies throughout the day. Local residents patiently stood in line for the next drop — hundreds awaiting their daily ration.

A long pause fell over the group after sharing their stories. Jillian interrupted the silence, “But how are you doing with all this?” Another long pause as the pastors glanced at each other out of the corner of their eyes. One pastor from the group put his face into his hands and began to weep.

In the one church building still standing, the team prayed in faith that God would provide hope and solutions to the devastation surrounding them. For now, this one church building has become home to three local churches, each sharing time on Sunday morning so their congregations can continue to meet. This one church building, intact in spite of gale-force winds and destruction from Hurricane Maria, remains one of the few beacons of hope in the community of Ciales. It has become a rallying point for local pastors to work together and begin the healing and clean-up process of their local communities.


“Sadly, we have lost a lot from this hurricane,” Pastor Ezequiel said. “But we are going to get out of this situation. We are grateful for the support and attention from the Saddleback PEACE teams, Pastor Rick, and Pastor Mike.”


Without supplies they don’t know when rebuilding can begin. But for now, they realize that they still have each other. This group of pastors is standing in faith God will provide for the churches and communities that he called them to serve.

“I’ve been working in disaster relief for 12 years,” Jillian said. “This is the worst that I’ve ever seen. But we can either do a little or we can do nothing. We are going to choose to do something, to make some kind of difference, even if it’s small.”


Learn more about PEACE Relief at saddleback.com/relief.

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