The following is a recap from Synod of the Trinity Transitional Executive Susan Faye Wonderland, who traveled with other Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) synod executives from around the country to Puerto Rico in early January.
On the evening of January 3rd, one of the Synod Executives sent a note to the two of us in charge of our gatherings this year. He linked us to an article that had come out on the 2nd about a 4.5 magnitude earthquake that was part of a string of quakes Puerto Rico had been experiencing in the southern part of the country! “That’s interesting,” I thought as I finished packing to leave for Puerto Rico the next morning. “I am sure that if there was concern we would have been notified.” And I put it aside.
So much for that. We arrived on Saturday to a beautiful, busy holiday weekend in San Juan, and it was not until Monday morning that we engaged the earthquake scenario again.
Ours was a short visit. In the fall, at meetings in Baltimore, my peers and I were visiting with our PCUSA Puerto Rican colleague, Antonio Roldan. One of our crew began to talk with Antonio about how the Maria cleanup was continuing and how the Presbyterian Disaster Assistance Camps were faring. And then we asked the big question: “How can we help?” Without missing a beat, Antonio said, “Come.”
And so we planned. It had been a number of years since the Synod Executives had met in that area of the PCUSA and we loved the idea of supporting with presence and then sharing our visit. The dates we agreed upon were early January, which would put us on the island during the Three Kings celebration – a bigger holiday than Christmas in many Hispanic cultures. Edwin Gonzalez-Castillo from PDA set up our trip for us, with opportunities to see a number of work camps and communities, and on Jan. 4th we flew in and met in San Juan.
Sunday worship was an incredible treat in local congregations. Several of us visited Iglesia Presbiteriana en Country Club in Carolina, Puerto Rico. What a joy to be greeted by folks both happy to see us and happy to be celebrating the special holiday. The congregational space was bright and decorated for the season. Multiple depictions of the Wise Ones were placed around the room, with one obviously being for a play that we would later enjoy.
I noticed that family generations were present. Beaming grandparents introduced us to grandchildren. One teenage granddaughter offered a lovely liturgical dance into worship!
I noticed that a number of congregants picked up rhythm instruments to join the band and worshippers as we sang!
I noticed that in spite of the language gap for me, worship was worship in our traditional liturgy.
Pastor Wilma beamed throughout worship and her presence helped to lead what was an uplifting celebration, complete with baptism, new members and communion. It almost felt like Easter!
I was touched by the hospitality of the congregation who not only welcomed and included us, many of whom did not speak much English but who were given a special moment to show their love when two young girls who had come to the church from the community were taken into membership and the infant son of one of the girls was baptized. The congregation joyously surrounded them and later on the infant became the baby Jesus, and the mom, Mary!
We sang carols that were new to us, received the sacrament of communion, and then it was time for the crowning, long-awaited part of worship that day. While Pastor Wilma read the Christmas story, the children and other members of the congregation acted it out – culminating with the arrival of the Wise Kings who truly were bearing gifts! We laughed at a character who really got into his role and who was new for us as part of the pageant: King Herod! Once the story was told, Mary and Joseph, the angels and shepherds all turned to the Wise Ones who handed each child a gift labeled for him or her!
After many hugs and conversations, we went on our way to compare notes with colleagues who had worshipped with another congregation in the Presbytery of San Juan. Their experience was similar.
Our first visit to a PDA camp took place that afternoon when we visited La Casona de Monteflore. Nestled in the city of San Juan, this site was both church and camp, hosting groups who are continuing the cleanup work throughout the region. We learned about the partnerships that have been cultivated across the city to do this work, and this was the first of several times that we heard about the 20,000 blue tarps still in the country – from Maria. There are buildings waiting for work, there are buildings that have been abandoned. A number of people have left the country and indeed I already knew of communities of Puerto Rican families that have grown up almost overnight in western Pennsylvania. It is frightening to have experienced the kind of storm that Maria was, only to be threatened again this past season. Now with the earthquakes I can only imagine what this kind of ongoing insecurity feels like. It is very new for me.
On Monday the 6th, Epiphany, we knew that we would be waking up to communities across Puerto Rico celebrating the Three Kings both in and beyond local congregations of Christians. What we did not expect was that a new earthquake in the south would be large enough that morning to wake many of us while still in San Juan. Only then did I remember the news article that had been sent my way. We learned that this time there was some significant damage and the rumblings were large enough that my family back home wanted to know why I wasn’t checking in with them!
We understood that our plans to head to Corcovada, Anasco and Aguadilla – both basically in the northwest – were on track, and so we drove the two hours to join in a Three Kings celebration sponsored by the Presbyterian Church for the Corcovada Community. What fun! There was a group in PDA T-shirts from the local camp, there was music and food and even a pig roast! I learned what serious domino playing can look like and even got to try it myself – without knowing a whole lot about domino strategy! And, yes, the Three Kings were here, too!
Later that day we visited our local PCUSA congregation and learned how, through PDA, that church had put in a generator that allows the local water supply to continue being pumped, even when a hurricane or other problem might knock out the power. It was a huge benefit to this mountain community.
Nearby was one of the PDA camps at a church that had been badly damage during Maria. In the wake of the hurricane, Ada Lis Luciano Adjujar, currently the clerk of session at Primera Iglesia Presbiteriana en Anasco, Puerto Rico, joyfully rallied her church and community, first to acquire and distribute needed supplies but then to rebuild and renew. The recently-finished sanctuary is lovely and the space for work teams, Posada de Ángeles, is comfortable and will provide the needed evening rest for those who come to serve.
The room of ready supplies includes medical, infant and food supplies as well as many general day-to-day items – available, if needed, for anywhere on the island. Ada Lis laughingly said, they could be used in the wake of another hurricane or maybe even an earthquake! She has found passion in this work and that passion is palpable. At one point she called on all of her friends and community to store five truckloads of FEMA supplies that were much needed and well used. We left grateful and thankful for the shared work of our PCUSA and others that allowed this space to be created, and we were grateful that Ada Lis has been called to give it life with this small congregation and part-time pastor.
The evening took us back into Aguadilla at the northwest corner of the island to stay, and we were tired! While waiting at the check-in counter, I heard familiar Christmas carols playing in the background, which felt a bit unusual given the wonderful new carols that we had sung (tried to sing!) in Spanish on Sunday morning!
Sleep was welcome that night, but the jolt at 4:24 am was not! It was long and strong enough to be scary, and earthquake neophyte that I am, I just stayed where I was. At the time, several of us started texting, maybe slept a bit more, and I didn’t feel anything else until a strong aftershock rocked my morning shower. It was unique to say the least. When family and Facebook friends started pinging my phone, I knew something big had happened.
As the early morning unfolded, we learned that indeed the quake had been 6.4 and the aftershock I believe in the high 5’s. Both were centered in the same southern area, but their depth and magnitude made them felt across the whole island. There was a short-lived tsunami warning, and the power grid, recovered from Maria but not overly strong, was shut down due to some damage. We soon learned of one death in the south and many more damaged buildings. And the aftershocks continued.
Our trip to yet another camp in the interior mountains of San Sabastian was cancelled because no one had assessed the roads and people were dealing with what had happened. Once we found some gas (power out, generators needed!) the execs returned to San Juan while Jim Kirk and Edwin (both PDA) headed south to assess and support. Later that night, Edwin said that the whole day there were aftershocks every 15-20 minutes and it was shaking the already-damaged area terribly. Unnerving to say the least.
Our final night in San Juan was not eventful. Generators allowed the large hotels and restaurants to maintain a near-normal function, and we understood that as far as it could be known, the ongoing quaking – some staggering number – would be felt primarily in the south. In the last 30 days there have been 144 earthquakes over 3.8 and many, many more less than that.
We spent some time debriefing and agreed that the spirit of the people we had encountered was a wonderful mix of resiliency and faith. We encountered a church that was on the ground and engaged in real ways with its community, and the larger PCUSA church through and with the local entities was very much engaged primarily through Presbyterian Disaster Assistance. We had made a real difference and were continuing to do so.
In the several weeks that I have been back home I have encountered at least four congregations who have plans to serve this year in one of the camps in Puerto Rico. In my head I can still hear folks talking about 20,000 blue tarps, and that is without even beginning to know how we might help and support in the south where people have not yet been allowed back into buildings. Time will tell, and while the seismic activity is still frequent in the south, sometimes in ways felt more broadly, we will be called upon for more than financial support in the days to come. Yes, the earthquake piece got loud as our few days moved on in Puerto Rico, but far beyond that it was wonderful to learn more about the PDA recovery work, and an honor to observe and be part of a holiday celebration that is different from many of our own. What a joy to learn new traditions and observances that celebrate the gift of the Christ Child! What a joy to learn them from brothers and sisters in this Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).
A few final thoughts: I was very aware that PDA has grown in its understanding of how best to do this disaster work since New Orleans and the Gulf. That was very obvious to me. I was also aware, as I headed towards the San Juan Airport to come home, that I was leaving the island while residents were not only staying but were staying in those parts of the island where the shaking and pounding continued. I suspect for some, the trauma of this experience – once it is over – will not just be about broken homes but about the long-term lack of safety and certainty these quakes have become. And to be sure, many are still remembering in difficult ways the trauma of the hurricanes.
As far as we understand now, we cannot blame any human failing for either Maria or the earthquakes – there is a brokenness in all of creation that allows even the natural world to collide with itself and us in catastrophic ways, but sometimes lives and sensibilities are changed forever when that happens. That people have left or want to leave to go to a place that may for now seem safer makes sense to me, yet so does staying, because it is known, it is home. My prayers are with those living in and serving through this struggle. They are a part of us.