‘Puerto Rico Se Levanta’: Partnering with Puerto Rico

January 29, 2020
Hamline Church team members, Hamline University Catalyst program participants, and other workers at the distribution center of Iglesia Metodista in San Juan.

By Katherine Schill, Hamline Church

Hamline Church recently sent two Volunteers in Mission (VIM) teams—which they called “HAM-ERS,” short for “Hamline Adult Missions: Experience, Resources, and Service”—to Puerto Rico to help families repair homes damaged by Hurricane Maria. The first team was joined by participants of Hamline University's Catalyst program; Catalyst trips use direct service to investigate questions of justice and community and provide students with an opportunity to learn about social justice, reflect about our roles in the community, and contribute via service over school breaks. A string of earthquakes forced both VIM teams to change their plans, but they found other ways to assist where they were needed most. Katherine Schill, who co-led the first VIM team, offered the following reflection about her eight-day trip—which highlights one important way in which some Minnesota churches are seeking to heal a broken world. Hamline Church’s second VIM team is in Puerto Rico now, picking up where the first team left off. Please pray for the safety of the VIM team, as well as all who live in Puerto Rico.

I feel so proud of HAM-ERS 2020 Puerto Rico mission teams. After months of planning, with the goal of helping families repair their Hurricane Maria-damaged homes, both mission teams found their projects unexpectedly cancelled due to a string of earthquakes occurring just a few miles southwest of the island. Each team, recognizing the needs of thousands of people—rendered homeless by unsafe structures or lacking electricity or water due to ruptured utilities, or simply fearful of the next tremor—chose to instead join their Puerto Rican brothers and sisters in disaster relief efforts. While they spent a matter of days on the island, their experiences in responding to such unpredictable, catastrophic conditions with compassion, care, and action will last a lifetime.

Hamline Church's first Volunteers in Mission team loads emergency supplies.

Less than 12 hours after the first HAM-ERS team arrived Jan. 10 at the Methodist camp in Arecibo, Puerto Rico, a 6.0-magnitude earthquake struck just south of Guanica, shaking the entire island. At the time, my husband Kevin and I were at the hospital, and we watched its plaster walls vibrate. A woman next to us panicked as her loved one lay helpless in the adjacent bed. Others ran out of the building. I walked about five steps to touch the wall near the woman, whom I came to know as Belis, and after a few seconds, the shaking stopped; but her shaking continued for at least 10 minutes more. She and some others around us were traumatized, afraid of when and how severe the next tremor would be.

That earthquake caused more cracks in foundations and infrastructure, which were already compromised, first by Hurricane Maria two years earlier, and by hundreds of other earthquakes that had occurred since Jan. 7.

Our project, which was to work with the Methodist Church of Puerto Rico to help restore Hurricane Maria-damaged homes, was cancelled. It was simply unsafe and futile to work on houses at the time. Moreover, resources needed to be redirected to help with immediate disaster assistance. In addition, many of the Puerto Rican staff who have family in the earthquake area needed to be free to check on the well-being of their loved ones.
Hamline Church's second team sorts supplies for those impacted by earthquakes.

We later learned that all projects on the island for the month of January—six to seven teams per week, each employing 10 to 12 Puerto Rican staff—were cancelled. All the camps were also closed, adding unemployment to the list of earthquake damages.

Our team, consisting of five members of Hamline Church, plus six students and three faculty from Hamline University’s Catalyst program, relocated back to San Juan and found temporary housing with two generous families within the Puerto Rico Annual Conference. Kevin and I stayed with family about 20 minutes away. Although split among various locations, we each learned how Puerto Ricans live graciously and fully from day to day, despite the uncertainty of disaster and hardship that seems to be never-ending.

So how did we respond? Instead of repairing homes, our team worked at Iglesia Metodista’s (San Juan) emergency distribution center, sorting donations of food and supplies, and then packing them into vans for delivery to places impacted by the earthquakes. And members of Hamline Church’s second team, who could have cancelled their trip, decided to keep their travel plans and departed Jan. 24. They have continued sorting items at the distribution center, visited various camps set up for earthquake refugees, and delivered backpacks filled with toys and other supplies to children in earthquake-impacted areas.

Our siblings in Puerto Rico continue to need our support. And HAM-ERS missions is honored to be in partnership with them as they re-build. To borrow a refrain heard often in Puerto Rico ever since Hurricane Maria, “Puerto Rico Se Levanta!” (“Puerto Rico Rises!”)

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