In Puerto Rico, Baptists gear up for hurricane season
PUERTO RICO -- With the beginning of the 2018 hurricane season, Puerto Rico is bracing for what could be more rough weather while in the midst of a recovery from last year's devastating storms. The North American Mission Board (NAMB) and its Send Relief outreach are expanding their mission work on the island, including disaster response readiness and church planting.
Southern Baptist Disaster Relief (SBDR) and Send Relief mobilized thousands of volunteers and more than a million dollars in resources in the months after Maria wrought havoc across the entire island. In the months since Hurricane Maria made landfall, Southern Baptists have continued to rebuild and serve the people of Puerto Rico.
"I keep seeing NAMB and Send Relief still active and working as if Hurricane Maria happened yesterday," said Jorge Santiago, a church planting missionary in Comerío, Puerto Rico. "For us, it's been a big, big help because we would not be able to help as many people if not for their support."
After the storm, Send Relief sent kits to pastors and churches that included hard-to-find items including a generator, water filters, a chainsaw and gas stoves among other items. The kits equipped local pastors and church leaders with the tools to reach those in need in their communities.
SBDR teams from Alabama, North Carolina, Virginia and Tennessee adopted zones on the island and worked with the churches in those communities to coordinate disaster relief operations. Teams from Kentucky and the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention helped remodel a Baptist seminary for volunteer housing after the storm.
For months afterward, churches and collegiate ministries sent teams through Send Relief.
Katie Cargle, an administrative assistant and part-time campus minister, helped lead a team of 32 college students from the Baptist Collegiate Ministry at the University of North Georgia. The North Georgia students served in Guayama, Puerto Rico, alongside Cargle and campus ministers Ken Jones and Keith Wade.
"It was honestly the best disaster relief trip I've ever done or been a part of," Cargle said. "All we had to do was fly our students to the island, and the Send Relief team did the rest. We literally just had to show up and work."
"God has provided abundantly for us here in North Texas," said Vince Smith, executive director for the CBA Church Network/Collin Baptist Association in Fairview, Texas. "As NAMB asked for associations across the nation to partner, we knew that we wanted to share our blessings and be a part of those recovery efforts in Puerto Rico."
While progress has been made on the island, Puerto Rico remains on a five- to ten-year journey toward recovery. Another hurricane could seriously derail that process.
To prepare for that possibility, Send Relief is in the process of creating a ministry center that can store resources and house up to 100 volunteers. During the response to Hurricane Maria, storm-damaged harbors and airports made it difficult to transport resources to the island.
"Send Relief's recent efforts have centered on securing property and assets in Puerto Rico for the upcoming hurricane season," Melber said. "We are very thankful for new alliances and the proactive plans now in place to better serve the people in the event of another hurricane."
Send Relief has been working with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and has become a participant in FEMA's Voluntary Agencies Leading and Organizing Repair (VALOR) program, which provides volunteer organizations with building materials at no charge.
Send Puerto Rico initiative in full swing
A new report conducted by The New England Journal of Medicine estimates the death toll related to the disaster to be more than 1,000 instead of the official record of 64. Melber noted the number illustrates "the reality of how many people were affected by the disaster and the help that is needed."
According to The New York Times, the storm knocked out power across the island, limiting hospitals and dialysis clinics and delaying record keeping.
"With communications down throughout the island and bodies piling up in hospital morgues, the government was still clinging to its early death count estimate," the Times reported.
Because many locations still don't have power and the needed supplies to rebuild, NAMB designated Puerto Rico earlier this year as one of its Send Focus Areas, and Hurricane Maria has opened more doors for reaching the people through church planting. There has been a consistent Southern Baptist presence in Puerto Rico through the years, but NAMB is now seeking to reemphasize Southern Baptist work on the island.
"We always knew that we were part of the Southern Baptist Convention family, but Hurricane Maria brought this reality to a new level," said Rodriguez. "NAMB and Send Relief were immediately engaged to help Puerto Rico in all possible ways."
The storm opened up hearts as survivors started searching for answers. When Southern Baptists arrived to help, many noticed the hard work they put in to serving the community.
"It's been a great opportunity for the Gospel," said Andres Luaracuente, a pastor and church planting missionary in Carolina, Puerto Rico. "The people have started to see Southern Baptists really helping. Everybody knows that our church is a Southern Baptist church and that we are wanting to serve."
"In spite of the storm, it has brought the churches together with a renewed sense of purpose and has led to lives being changed due to the outreach," Melber said.
The need for prayer over Puerto Rico is still great, and Melber encourages everyone to "pray to the Lord about what would He have you do to see the ministry grow in Puerto Rico."
Santiago noted Southern Baptist churches' contributions would not merely be about meeting immediate, physical needs. "They are not just investing in something or in an organization," he said. "They are investing in someone's life for eternity, and they help us share the Gospel and reach the lost."