In the year since Hurricane Maria decimated the island of Puerto Rico, the United Church of Christ has accompanied the people of the U.S. territory in their journey toward recovery. UCC Disaster Ministries has invested almost a half million dollars in the rebuilding effort, and coordinated the scheduling and management of scores of local church volunteers from around the country. Just as important, the UCC has offered the much-appreciated support of presence, from both clergy and national executives, in Puerto Rican communities.
That immediate assistance and sustaining partnership with the Iglesias Evangelica Unida de Puerto Rico (IEUPR) continues today.
"Since day one after Maria, our local congregations went out to the streets to aid our communities. Although we had very limited resources, we fed the hungry and gave refuge to those that lost everything. Our church was one of the first responders for communities in the mountains that were totally disconnected," said the Rev. Edward Rivera, pastor general of the IEUPR. "The UCC, along with everyone at UCC Disaster Ministries, helped us reach even more people in need. We are forever grateful for their help, support, and time spent here with us."
When the Category 4 hurricane struck Puerto Rico on Sept. 20, 2017, it took down the power grid, disrupted the country's water supply, and crippled communication systems. High winds and driving rains wiped out entire neighborhoods, damaged countless homes and all but destroyed Ryder Memorial Hospital. Nearly 3,000 people died as a result, 60 during the hurricane and the rest months after the storm passed.
Disaster Ministries immediately responded to assist partners in Puerto Rico, with emergency supplies, (generators, water filters, hygiene kits, food, first aid kits and tarps), construction materials, tools, equipment, vehicles and a shipment of medical equipment. They offered preparedness workshops, funds for tuition assistance and pastoral support. Through UCC Partners in Service, Disaster Ministries set up volunteer housing on the island to welcome laborers from dozens of UCC congregations across the U.S. Most of them have been repairing roofs in the communities of Humacao and Yabucoa, on the eastern side of Puerto Rico.
Traci Smith, from Ivanhoe Congregational Church in Mundelein, Ill., was part of a volunteer group from four different UCC churches that belong to the Fox Valley Association. They worked sealing roofs in late August, in a neighborhood that just saw power restored in July.
"What we did might not seem very glamorous or be immediately visible, but homes need to be watertight or any work that's done inside will be ruined with the next rainfall," Smith said. "Sometimes it's not even about the work. It's about showing people that someone cares enough about them to come."
"In collaboration with one of our primary partners, the IEUPR, we will be heavily engaged in home repairs and preparedness work for the foreseeable future but we need more volunteers to help us stretch our resources and reach," said Zach Wolgemuth, Disaster Ministries executive. "To date nearly 40 homes have received repairs and many more are on the waiting list."
Disaster Ministries is currently scheduling volunteer opportunities into June of 2019.
"We have been able to work, in big part, thanks to all of the women and men volunteers who have come from different UCC congregations around the U.S. This companionship has been truly meaningful and significant for us as a church and as a nation," Rivera said. "Without them, we wouldn't have been able to fix the more than hundred houses to this date."
In addition to home repairs, UCC volunteers are working on the food supply. When Maria blew through Puerto Rico, the storm wiped out 80 percent of crop values, a blow to the island's economy that also left its 3.4 million U.S. citizen residents food insecure.
The Rev. Damaris Whittaker, pastor of Fort Washington Collegiate Church (FWCC) in New York, led two mission trips this summer. One group of youth and adults worked alongside a local farmer to plant a field to help restore the food supply.
"The FWCC youth spent a week in Miraflores, Orocovis, Puerto Rico, planting corn, beans and pumpkin seeds," Whittaker said. "We brought corn seeds with us because they could not be found in Puerto Rico. We also planted sunflower seeds to attract the bees."
"The joint work of UCC's Disaster Ministries and partners in Puerto Rico reflects the priorities of the Three Great Loves Initiative—love of neighbor, love of children and love of creation," said the Rev. Jim Moos, UCC national officer, executive minister of Global Engagement. "Each of these three suffered greatly from Hurricane Maria, and each is receiving healing through the long-term recovery effort."
But all acknowledge that there is much work still ahead to make Puerto Rico whole again.
"While there has been progress, the infrastructure is very weak," Whittaker said. "People are still experiencing long-lasting power outages. Water is not consistent for many communities, therefore, is not safe to drink. Schools continue to close, charter schools and a voucher system is the order of the day. To date, more than 180,000 Puerto Ricans have left the island and it is noticeable."
UCC work teams all noted that their intent was to make life easier for the people who remain.
"Hearing their stories really brings home that something like this could happen to any one of us at any time," Smith said. "What if nobody helped?"
"I am honored to have helped in Puerto Rico and I think I can speak for the rest of the group as well," said volunteer Gary McDermit, Shenkel UCC, Pottstown, Pa. "We all had a common goal to help as much as we could in order to make their lives a little better. It gave us a chance to experience a different culture and be the hands of Christ after a disaster."
"UCC Disaster Ministries is committed to serving alongside our Puerto Rican Sisters and Brothers as long as we are able. We know recovery will take years and our ability for continued engagement will depend upon ongoing donations and financial support," Wolgemuth said. "It is my prayer and hope that as the disaster fades from memories and from the media spotlight that each of us commit to remembering the thousands that lost their lives and the thousands more that are still in need."
UCC Disaster Ministries also is actively supporting Maria and Irma recovery in the U.S. Virgin Islands, Matthew and Irma recovery in Florida, and Harvey recovery in Texas. Volunteer work teams can sign up here.
Learn other ways to assist the people of Puerto Rico here.