CAYEY, Puerto Rico — Despite the pummeling received from Hurricane Maria in September, Puerto Rico’s lush vegetation is blooming early this year, pushing out blossoms and leaves on trees amputated of major limbs and bushes left naked and torn.
Reflowering, one of Mother Nature’s responses to trauma, symbolizes what’s taking place within the island’s 21 Mennonite churches now that repair wafts in the air four months after the Sept. 20 tropical cyclone beat their homeland with winds exceeding 150 mph and lashing rain.
A cacophony of building sounds — pounding hammers, buzzing saws, the whoo! pop-pop-pop of nail guns — is happily replacing memories of bestial “lion roar” winds and crashing trees that Puerto Rico’s 3.5 million U.S. citizens endured for 40 hours.
It may take years for the island to fully recover from Maria — the most intense hurricane since 1928 — but its aftermath is giving churches, their members and stateside organizations an occasion to revisit priorities, values and methods.
Mennonite Disaster Service is partnering with Puerto Rico’s Mennonite churches to rebuild, starting with church members’ homes.
MDS has worked with the churches and Mennonite Central Committee to distribute food and canned meat. At of the end of January, six stateside volunteer groups have gone to Puerto Rico to assist in cleanup and repair homes. MDS sent an engineer team in December to assess next steps in building safe and secure homes. The goal is to help heal those who are simultaneously helping their neighbors heal.
To accept help requires humility, said Mennonite church member Pascual Santiago. He and his wife, Josefina, gave their hearts to Christ in 1994. Since then, the couple has had no problem giving, assisting the Evangelical Mennonite Church of Cayey in outreach to the homeless, prisoners, those in hospitals and others.
During a recent break from work in the hot sun, Santiago spoke about his personal struggle to receive.
“I’ve played the ‘no’ game for years,” he said, explaining how over the years he refused two offers of help to build his four-member family a new home.
“This time God said, ‘Don’t play the “no” game with me,’ ” he related in fluent English acquired in employment with Raytheon in Massachusetts, Lockheed Martin in California and Coca-Cola in Puerto Rico.
On Jan. 22, Santiago and his 24-year-old son Hiram said “yes” to help. They worked with six MDS volunteers from Iowa to tote their home’s remaining debris down a steep slope to the main road in Guavate, a rural southeast cranny of the central mountain range.
Hurricane Maria wrecked Santiago’s father’s house, in which the couple raised two children.
“God said it’s time for you to calm down and receive. Because I’m not blessing only you; there are a lot of people who need to be blessed because of you and because of the situation,” said the soft-spoken man. “I had to ask God for a lot of forgiveness.”
‘I can carry trash away’
The MDS workers were there because Noreen Gingerich thought twice about how to celebrate 45 years of marriage and family farm life. Instead of two weeks in Hawaii, she and her husband, Ken, opted for a week of volunteer work, followed by a week’s rest in Hawaii.
Gingerich, 68, recruited another couple and two other men. Four of the six team members had served together with MCC in Bolivia and speak Spanish.
“I don’t know how to build, but I can carry trash away,” said Gingerich, who gamely carried on despite having broken her wrist in November.
“The needs in Puerto Rico are great,” she said. The Gingeriches are members of First Mennonite Church in Iowa City.
Meanwhile, her group was blessed with Josefina Santiago’s cooking, hospitality and willingness to share of her botanical expertise.
Although the household, which used to be nearly food self-sufficient, lost valuable plantain and banana trees, she dug up a variety of native roots, including the purple malanga, a sweet-potato-like batata and white-fleshed cassava to prepare tasty native dishes for the Iowans.
A place of refuge
In Vega Baja, in the middle of the island’s north coast, Pastor Walter Montañez Garcia gazed upon the concrete foundation where his congregation’s mostly wood-frame, zinc-roofed church once stood. Of the walls, only one, of cement and painted bright blue, still points heavenward.
The walls that fell opened churches and homes to neighbors.
“Obviously we were very sad to see the church destroyed, but Maria brought about a different way of thinking. In my neighborhood, for example, some of us didn’t even know our neighbors, and now I think everyone knows one another,” Garcia said. “Now we share; our social ties have been strengthened.”
His congregation, Iglesia Menonita Maná del Cielo (Manna from Heaven Mennonite Church), comes to rebuilding with a fresh vision.
“I’ve always thought of church as a place of refuge,” he said.
With architectural training, Garcia has a design for a building strong enough to withstand hurricane winds. It will shelter area residents should future disasters strike. Blueprints include men’s and women’s bathrooms with showers and living space for individuals who may need it while awaiting new lodging.
He envisions not only a place of worship but a building that will do double duty as a community service and development center. The church is one of three severely damaged Mennonite houses of worship on the island.
“We are only 12 members but many of us work professionally, in clinical social work, mechanics, carpentry and education,” he said of congregants who want to put their skills at the community’s service.
If Mother Nature survives by flourishing after trauma, it appears Puerto Rico’s Mennonite congregations and their members will not only survive but also thrive in the wake of the harrowing hurricane.