By Jeni Miller
The LCMS has been working steadily in Puerto Rico since Hurricanes Irma and Maria battered the area within two weeks of each other in 2017.
Hurricane Irma, a Category 5 storm that passed just north of Puerto Rico on Sept. 6, 2017, left over a million people in the island commonwealth without power.
On Sept. 20, 2017, Puerto Rico received a direct hit from Hurricane Maria, which was almost a Category 5 at landfall. Maria has been deemed the worst-ever recorded natural disaster to befall Puerto Rico.
The one-two punch of two catastrophic hurricanes in close succession was devastating to the area. Now the Synod is deploying a grant given by the Harold C. Smith Foundation to support the recovery.
Connected in Word and community
The Harold C. Smith Foundation honors the legacy of the late Rev. Dr. Harold C. Smith, who passed away in March 2017. Smith had an extensive, 40-year dual career in both ministry and investments, serving as president and chief investment officer of the YMCA Retirement Fund and as an ordained pastor in the United Church of Christ.
The $600,000 grant, which will be disbursed over the course of three years, is intended to help strengthen mercy care efforts on the ground in Puerto Rico, enabling LCMS World Relief and Human Care Disaster Response to ensure that Puerto Ricans have basic food and housing as well as access to much-needed spiritual care.
Relief work purposely takes place in close proximity to Lutheran congregations in Puerto Rico, ensuring that the addressing of physical needs goes hand-in-hand with delivering the hope of the Gospel.
The LCMS “intentionally proceed[s] with witnessing and rebuilding,” explains Mary Hamilton, grants manager for the Synod, “and keep[ing] those hurting connected to God’s Word long after the disaster. This separates us from others who only provide relief supplies, a physical need, then leave.
“People have needs well beyond the physical realm. [The] LCMS … [keeps] locals connected in Word as well as in community.”
Care for body and soul
The recovery and rebuilding project, called “Body and Soul Care in Puerto Rico — Mercy Center in Mayaguez,” was of particular interest to the Harold C. Smith Foundation because of the LCMS’ “excellent track record with disaster response/recovery, particularly with Katrina and Maria,” said Vanessa Jerome, managing director of the Harold C. Smith Foundation. “When we heard about the development of the mercy center, we felt it was a wonderful opportunity to contribute to the recovery of Puerto Rico.”
The Foundation found the LCMS through a simple Google search, looking for Christian organizations focusing on disaster relief.
“We were looking for an organization with a Gospel center,” added Jerome, “and were impressed by the LCMS’ focus on long-term recovery, putting roots down and being a part of the community. We understand that once first responders have gone, there’s still a need.
“We love that the LCMS has a strong commitment to long-term support/care for the local community, that the message of the Gospel is incorporated in the provision of care and that they collaborate with neighborhood leaders.”
Through this grant, which furthers the work of LCMS-established mercy centers, locals also have an opportunity to attend community events for children and adults, participate in English-as-a-Second-Language classes and develop a deep connection with the local LCMS churches.
Insult to injury
One couple served by the “Body and Soul Care” project has not only received help repairing their home, but has also found a home in the local Lutheran church.
Manuel and his wife, Sarah, “have not had an easy life,” explained Ruth Maita, an LCMS GEO (Globally Engaged in Outreach) missionary to Puerto Rico. “[Sarah’s] father had a family business where Manuel worked, but when her father passed away, her stepmother became the owner and cut off ties from the family. Manuel’s sole remaining source of income came from a digger, which is now in disrepair.”
The hurricane added insult to injury.
“With no income and a broken roof, they felt an intense loss of hope,” said Maita. “The disaster response team was able to provide them with new zinc sheets to repair their roof. Along with the physical materials for a new roof came an invitation to come to worship at Prince of Peace [in Mayaguez].”
In February, Manuel and Sarah began worshiping at Prince of Peace, expressing that “for the first time they felt peace and hope.”
“Sarah especially found true and lasting comfort in the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the fellowship of the church,” added Maita. “Manuel had said he would never go to church before because of the hypocrisy. Now he will be starting confirmation classes with Sarah, and she will be baptized.”
Maita says the disaster-response team is thankful “for the continued support to reach people with the Gospel, showing mercy after the hurricane. Thank God for the Harold C. Smith grant, which allows us to continue showing His mercy.”
LCMS President Rev. Dr. Matthew C. Harrison said, “The grant for Puerto Rico, coming from an organization that does granting for secular purposes, demonstrates that the LCMS has developed, over the last couple of decades, enormous capacity, not only for domestic disaster response, but for international response. It’s a great affirmation of our work, and we are very, very thankful.”
Further details about Disaster Response’s work in Puerto Rico can be found here.
Deaconess Jeni Miller (firstname.lastname@example.org] is a freelance writer and member of Lutheran Church of the Ascension in Atlanta.
Posted March 5, 2019