Storms of Fear – CBA Ministry in Puerto Rico
By Marc Ira Hooks
Fear followed by panic gripped residents of the hurricane-battered island of Puerto Rico this week as the first named storm of the Atlantic Hurricane Season swept through Monday. The remnants of Hurricane Beryl, downgraded to a tropical storm before it made landfall on the southeast side of Puerto Rico, brought heavy rains and flash floods. The island is still recovering from the effects of Hurricane Maria last year.
“People went into panic mode Thursday and Friday,” said Princeton, Texas, resident Rafael Gutierrez, a native Puerto Rican attending a family reunion this week on the west side of the island. “Hurricane Maria left a lot more than the physical damage. People here are emotionally scarred.” Before this week’s storm, more than 10,000 homes were still without power as a result of Maria which tore through the island last September. Officials at the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority are now estimating the number of powerless homes is closer to 13,000. Some parts of the island are still without running water.
“What I saw over the weekend is a clear example of the fear and anxiety the people of Puerto Rico are living with,” Gutierrez said. “Since Maria, their lives have changed completely.”
In May, Gutierrez joined officials from the Collin Baptist Association (CBA) Church Network on a tour of the island. In cooperation with the Southern Baptist North American Mission Board’s SEND Relief program, CBA has partnered with Rahm Baptist Church in Coamo to assist the pastor and the church as they minister to their community.
“When we went to bed, it was Sept. 19, 2017,” pastor Louis A. Rodriguez Molina recalls. “When we woke up on Sept. 20, it was like being back in the 1950s.” The city is located in the south-central region of Puerto Rico, and normally has a population of around 40,000, though many of the city’s residents have since left the island in the hopes of restarting their lives in mainland United States.
Standing on a tower overlooking Coamo, tears welled up in the pastor’s eyes as he inspected the city where he helped plant the church he now shepherds. “There is so much hurt and need in this place,” he said, pointing to the landscape of homes dotted with blue tarps where roofs should be. “But it is not just the physical needs. These people are hurting spiritually and need Jesus.”
In an area of Coamo known as Rio Chiquita (Little River), Rodolfo Colon and his family waited out the storm Monday night hunkered together in a dome-shaped nylon camping tent inside their makeshift home – blue tarps lashed to a hastily constructed frame of lumber. . The family has been living this way, with all their worldly possessions gathered together under the temporary covering, since Hurricane Maria tore the roof off their house. Colon spends weekends and every available opportunity working single-handedly to repair his home. However, his job at a roadside rotisserie chicken stand provides little time, and even less income, for Colon to expedite the repairs.
On the other side of Coamo atop a mountain peak, gusting winds force weather-beaten blue tarps to flap against what is left of Francisco “Tito” Morales’ home. The single father and his small children moved into the newly built house just before the storms. Today, baskets of children’s toys and various tools scatter the floors and counters of the wallless house. A calendar left hanging on the wall marks the date of Hurricane Irma, the first and lesser of hurricanes to strike Puerto Rico last year. Morales now lives with his mother while trying to repair his home. However, progress has been stalled due to finances. Though the house was without electricity for weeks, Morales received a bill from the power company charging him thousands of dollars for electricity he never received. And though the house is currently uninhabitable, the bank still expects payment on the mortgage every month making it nearly impossible for Morales to make headway on repairs.
Back at the church, members regularly distribute canned goods, toiletries, and other supplies to people like Morales and Colon. Pastor Rodriguez explained the name of the church, Rham, is not a Spanish word. Rather, it is from Hebrew and means compassion. Rodriguez believes his church building was spared from Hurricane Maria and the storm this week in order to bring compassion to the people of Coamo.
“People are angry. But they are not angry with God,” pastor Rodriguez said. “Coming through these storms has made them angry with government and agencies, but they are receptive to God. The government will always disappoint the people. But God will not disappoint. He is still there.”
Louis Rosenthal, Moderator for the Collin Baptist Association and pastor of The McKinney First Baptist Church said seeing the physical and spiritual condition of Puerto Rico firsthand has made a deeper impact than any other during his 12 years of ministry. “No mission need has stirred my heart to serve, pray, give and encourage others to serve, pray, and give like what I have experienced in Puerto Rico,” said Rosenthal. “We are well aware that we cannot help every church, but our desire is to help as many as we can to help bring about hope and share the transformational power of the Gospel.”
In response to further requests from the church in Coamo, Rosenthal is spearheading an effort for CBA churches to provide both physical and spiritual ministry opportunities. Trips to Puerto Rico are being organized for later this year, and donations can be made through the CBA Church Network’s Puerto Rico Hurricane Disaster Fund – Collin Loves Coamo – at http://bit.ly/collinlovescoamo. For more information, call the CBA Church Network at 972-529-5222 or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Please click on the video below to hear a special message from Pastor Louis Rosenthal.
EDITOR’S NOTE: An expanded version of this story, plus other features from Puerto Rico will be highlighted in the next edition of The Encourager Magazine.