[Episcopal News Service – Toa Baja, Puerto Rico] Bishop Rafael Morales leaves no impression he is still wading into his job. He had been leading the Diocese of Puerto Rico a mere two months when Hurricane Maria devastated the island in September, and since then he and his staff and clergy around the diocese have mobilized relief efforts with a determination that this week earned praise from Presiding Bishop Michael Curry during his two-day visit.
Hurricane Maria was and continues to be an unparalleled catastrophe, Morales said, but he is seizing the opportunity for ministry to his fellow Puerto Ricans.
“Our people have a good heart,” he said Jan. 3, on the road to the coastal town of Toa Baja accompanied by Curry. Puerto Rico’s culture is one of thanksgiving, Morales said. “This diocese is a diocese of hope.”
Curry was in Puerto Rico on a pastoral visit, and he preached Jan. 3 in the evening at the Episcopal cathedral in San Juan, the capital of the U.S. territory. The earlier stop in Toa Baja introduced Curry and his delegation to Hugs of Love, a series of pop-up medical clinics the diocese has offered since the hurricane through the health care system it runs. This and other ministries are strengthened by ecumenical partnerships and through collaboration with federal agencies, local nonprofits and the Episcopal Church’s Episcopal Relief & Development.
For the Hugs of Love event in Toa Baja, open-air canvas tents were set up on a vacant gravel lot provided by the local Disciples of Christ congregation, which also sent volunteers. They wore hats and shirts with the message “Ama Como Crist” – “Love Like Christ.”
“Thank you for what you’ve both done. It’s God’s work,” Curry said to the Disciples of Christ pastor, the Rev. Prudencio Rivera Andujar, and his wife, Azalia Gomez.
Curry walked through the tents shaking hands and doling out hugs to the diocesan volunteers and some of the hundreds of residents who had come for the daylong clinic. They waited their turns to receive blood pressure checks, blood tests, vaccinations, prescription refills and other medical services, all provided free by doctors and nurses from Episcopal Hospital San Lucas, based in Ponce.
Everyone from the San Lucas system gets involved in the pop-up clinics, Jesus Cruz Correa, the hospital’s medical director, told Curry. “We rotate the doctors.” Patients who need further medical attention are referred to the hospital for follow-up visits.
A box truck from the hospital, parked near one of the tents, was filled with food, water and personal hygiene items for distribution to the families. Lunch and music were included in the event, along with activities for the children.
Morales, who spent seven years as a priest in Toa Baja, was an eager host, leaning in for a laugh often and deploying his infectious smile nearly always. He is an Episcopalian who talks constantly about his blessings, his diocese’s blessings, and his people’s blessings, even in a time of such deprivation. The church is motivated to engage with the community, he said.
“It’s a blessing, it’s a ministry,” he had told Curry earlier in the day after greeting him at the hotel in San Juan. “We have hard moments now, but Jesus is blessing us.”
Residents still struggle months after hurricane
The scene around Toa Baja, about 20 minutes west of San Juan, only hints at the scale of the disaster still gripping much of the island more than 100 days after Maria struck as a powerful category 4 hurricane. It made landfall Sept. 20 with maximum sustained winds of 155 mph, knocking out power and telephone service for the island’s 3.4 million residents. It caused mudslides, destroyed homes and businesses, downed trees and created extreme shortages of food and drinking water.
The official death toll from the storm stands at 64, but a New York Times analysis last month suggests the disaster’s real toll is exponentially higher, possibly topping 1,000 deaths.
The damage to Puerto Rico’s infrastructure has been particularly devastating. The governor’s office announced last week that power had been restored to only 55 percent of customers across the island, and getting the lights back on in remote areas might not happen until May.
In Trujillo Alto, a downed utility pole rests at the side of a road that leads to the Episcopal diocesan offices, in a neighborhood among those still without power. Some stoplights on the town’s thoroughfares have only recently begun working again, but as of this week, Morales’ team was based in a building still powered by a generator.
Some inland mountain communities have been hit even harder. “Roads are completely destroyed,” the Rev. Edwin Orlando Velez said through a Spanish translator while visiting the Hugs for Love clinic in Toa Baja.
Orlando Velez serves two congregations in the west-central part of the island, in the towns of Lares and Maricao. Many people are still are without power or water, he said. Because of mudslides and downed trees, driving is difficult.
The churches are working with the local municipalities to help with cleanup, but Orlando Velez and other priests also have been ministering to hurricane victims through home visits. They often find that simply holding someone’s hand and listening to the person’s stories makes a difference.
“I would say that they are in pretty good spirits,” he said. “The people in the mountains are used to hardships. Because of that they have had an accepting attitude.”
Some of the diocese’s priests lost their homes. Others didn’t have power in their churches until receiving generators, with help from Episcopal Relief & Development and other church partners, such as the Diocese of Maryland.
In the first days after the storm, with phone lines down and cell service unreliable, Episcopal Relief & Development arranged to get satellite phones to the diocese so Morales’ team could coordinate pastoral and medical relief efforts with far-flung clergy. Episcopal Relief & Development also has paid for food and water, and because of its experience responding to previous hurricanes, it is helping the diocese coordinate with federal agencies and other relief organizations.
Episcopal Relief & Development President Rob Radtke, who accompanied Curry on his two-day visit, called Puerto Rico a “high-capacity diocese.” The diocese has successfully leveraged its health care system as part of relief efforts, he said, and it benefits from well-organized and ambitious leadership with a heartening interest in serving its community.
“This is where the church really has a particular gift. This is true both in Puerto Rico and elsewhere,” Radtke told Episcopal News Service. “It has access to the most intimate parts of people’s lives, and it has a high level of trust that it can call on, in terms of people reaching out to the church and seeing the church as a place that will meet their needs.”
Morales expressed disappointment in the federal response so far. He doesn’t think the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, has shown the same commitment to Puerto Rico as it has to communities in the continental United States that were ravaged by hurricanes in 2017, such as Houston. In areas where the government is seen as falling short, his diocese hopes to step up.
“The blessing is that now we are a missionary diocese,” Morales told Curry over lunch of chicken, rice and beans, as three costumed Wise Men took the lead in handing out bags of food and water to families visiting the Toa Baja clinic.
After lunch, Morales and Curry joined the Three Wise Men to distribute toys to a long line of smiling children and their parents – “the Epiphany in advance,” Morales said.
In face of despair, seeking signs of hope
Curry had another biblical reference in mind. “You have turned the water of the hurricane into the wine of hope,” he told the church leaders in Toa Baja, providing a preview of his sermon hours later.
That evening, at Holy Eucharist at the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist, Curry spoke of the Epiphany gospel reading resonating for the local church’s mission – how the Three Wise Men of the Gospel of Matthew stumbled upon a miracle, and how Episcopalians in Puerto Rico may find miracles in themselves. Then he invoked the story of the Wedding at Cana, in which Jesus took jars of water and turned them into wine for all of those gathered.
“I’ve heard about neighbors taking care of neighbors,” he said, highlighting examples in Puerto Rico, from the priests who have reached out to people with damaged homes to the doctors and nurses he met at the “hospital in the field” in Toa Baja.
“You’ve been turning the water of Maria into the wine of hope,” he told the congregation.
He concluded with words of encouragement, for Episcopalians in Puerto Rico to keep following the way of Jesus as they minister to their neighbors.
“When you walk through the storm, hold your head up high,” he said. “If you follow Jesus, you’ll never walk alone.”
Such encouragement is welcome. Despair is a constant threat for families struggling after the hurricane, said Damaris DeJesus, who serves as secretary of the diocese’s board of directors and who chauffeured Curry and the other visitors to some of their stops this week.
“For example, that house,” she said, pointing to a damaged apartment building on the side of a road in Toa Baja. “That family, what are they going to do?” At the same time, she credited Morales with emphasizing hope in calling the diocese to serve those in need.
DeJesus is a psychologist who teaches at the University of Puerto Rico, and after the hurricane she worked with interns to set up group counseling sessions with families dealing with the psychological trauma of losing so much. She was struck by the perspective of a 6-year-old boy who was living in a tent with his parents because his family’s home was damaged in the storm.
“At the moment I met him, I saw how happy he was,” she told Curry and his staff through an interpreter. The boy had pointed out all that his family still had, including each other. “He was thankful to God that he was with his parents.”
On Jan. 4, Morales arranged for Curry to hear testimonials from people who survived the hurricane. After giving Curry and his staff a tour of the diocesan offices in Trujillo Alto, he invited them outside to a banquet lunch under a tent, where the generator’s rumble mixed with the sound of live music.
Before the lunch was served, four Episcopalians stood to speak to the crowd of several dozen people about their experiences during and after Hurricane Maria. Kelma L. Nieves Serrano of Fajardo described how she and her wife lost everything – their house flooded, their car destroyed.
“We also had God as our companion,” she said through a translator. And they felt fortunate to have members of the Episcopal community checking in on them and offering food, water and transportation when needed. “We are struggling, but we are standing.”
Elfidia Pizarro Parrilla of Loíza said she and her neighbors were similarly thankful for the support of the Episcopal Church. The hurricane “turned our home upside-down. I have lost everything that I had,” Pizarro Parrilla said. “The church said, ‘we are here, present with you.’”
Morales gave his own testimonial, beginning by acknowledging his own despair after the hurricane struck. He came to the diocese’s offices, saw the surrounding destruction and wondered what he could do. He was inspired by the sight of a cross, which was still standing outside behind the main building.
“When I saw the cross, I understood that the Lord was indeed in the middle of the storm and he was here after the storm,” Morales told the crowd gathered under the tent.
The tent had been raised on a large concrete slab in front of the main building, and it served as a symbol of resurrection as Morales spoke of how God has guided the diocese forward. The hurricane destroyed a provisional church building that stood on that concrete slab, which now supported a gathering filled with fellowship and resolve.
“What a hurricane takes away can be rebuilt into something good,” he said.
– David Paulsen is an editor and reporter for the Episcopal News Service. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Dinorah Padro contributed translation for this report.