By Rick Wolcott*
“All of you are a gift from God because your presence here lets us know we are not alone,” Methodist Church of Puerto Rico Bishop Hector Ortiz told the 40 members of our joint mission team from the East Ohio Conference and the Western Pennsylvania Conference.
We spent the last week of June in Patillas, Puerto Rico, on the southeast coast of the island just west of where Hurricane Maria hit land in September 2017. People there are still recovering from the physical and emotional toll left behind in the wake of the deadly hurricane.
Bishops Cynthia Moore-Koikoi (Western PA) and Tracy S. Malone (East Ohio) responded to the report Ortiz gave to the Council of Bishops in November 2017, updating them on the condition of the island territory of the United States.
“As I was sitting there, I was moved with compassion and I said immediately in that moment, ‘I must go.’ I felt that God was calling me to be part of the recovery effort in Puerto Rico,” Malone said.
“We looked at each other and immediately had a connection and both of us knew that we had to come to Puerto Rico,” Moore-Koikoi added. “It has been a wonderful experience. We have seen God move in so many ways!”
The two bishops invited clergy and laity to join them on the joint mission team that brought together two conferences from two different United Methodist Church jurisdictions for one cause – to help the people of Puerto Rico.
“Love. Family. Connection.”
Those are just a few of the responses offered by team members when asked to share one word that describes why they accepted the bishops’ invitation.
“People who are coming here can hear our story then return home and let others know that ‘there’s loving people there who need help,’” said Nidtza Ivette Padilla Martinez, volunteers coordinator for the Puerto Rico Conference.
Teams from The United Methodist Church were easily identifiable in towns across the island because of the blue shirts provided by the Puerto Rico Conference. On the back of the shirts were these words:
“Haz todo el bien que puedas por todos los medios que puedas … “ Juan Wesley
Which translates as:
“Do all the good you can with everything you can … “ John Wesley
Each member of the team lived out Wesley’s call. We were one of nearly 60 groups from The United Methodist Church that have assisted in Puerto Rico since the island opened to outside mission teams in January – and the first group that included bishops. During the week we worked on six homes and the mission center that hosted the group.
“Caring. Hope. Duty.”
One bunkhouse at the mission center hosted the women while the other housed the men. Meetings, devotions and meals were held in a large common area. Our home-cooked meals were provided by members of the United Methodist Women of the Methodist Church of Puerto Rico. We learned that following Hurricane Maria, the women served more than 5,000 meals to people who had nowhere to go.
UMW President Alicia Reyes told the group, “We do everything and try anything to make people comfortable.”
Ten months after the hurricane, Pastor Isabelino Rivera Silva of Iglesia Metodista Unida, where we worshipped during our stay, continues to remind the congregation that they are not alone as they work to rebuild their lives.
“If you have faith in the Lord, anything is possible because you have faith in the Lord,” he preached.
The message applies to each of us.
“Justice. Faithfulness. Serving.”
When asked what he would say to people reading this article, Luis Acosta, a college student from Guayama, Puerto Rico who assisted the EOC-WPC team said:
“I want you to have this amazing experience of giving hope to those who lost everything. I encourage you to get involved – and it doesn’t have to be in Puerto Rico. You can help out in your community, in your church, in other states. There are many, many people in need.”
Individuals and groups interested in serving on mission teams in Puerto Rico should fill out this Google document and send an e-mail to Jason Frazer, who is the Puerto Rico volunteer coordinator on the mainland for United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR).
*Rick Wolcott is director of Communications for the East Ohio Conference of The United Methodist Church.