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Puerto Rico Day 3: Women who provide

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At the end of our Friday, one of the Advisory Committee members exclaimed, “We have met some bad*ss women today!” We simply could not find a better substitute for our adjective of choice. These were women who risked their lives — foregoing food, sleep, and personal safety so that they can make sure the people in their communities know they are loved and that the church is there to care for them, especially when it seems like no one else does. 

In the morning, we departed from the beautiful coast of the island and endured a white-knuckled drive through windy inclined roads to reach the mountainous interior of PR. Our first stop was to visit El Guacio Camp and Conference Center, a Presbyterian camp owned by the Synod. Wilmary Vargas, director of the camp, retold a story that I’m sure she has told over and over again, revealing glimpses of God’s providence and presence as she and her 17-year old son hunkered down at the Camp as Hurricane Maria battered the island with its Category 4 winds. 

When a disaster hits, you don’t get to simply walk away from your job or people in dire need. Wilmary, a registered nurse, skipped meals to make sure her son had enough to eat. She moved heaven and earth to repair over 100 feet of broken pipes from the camp’s own water tank to become the only source of clean water for the camp’s surrounding community for over 2 months. After witnessing an elderly woman’s desperate search for ice (insulin medication has to stay chilled), she never gave up hope in securing an ice machine for the camp. From November 9th until about 3 weeks ago, Wilmary, now known as the Ice Woman, helped provide 800 lbs of ice daily to the community.

After we listened with our jaws wide open to tale after tale of persistent hope and effort and desperation, Wilmary shared with us her dreams and plans to open the camp as a housing site for volunteer work teams. She said she no longer sees the camp as solely a retreat center but also a service center where God’s hands and feet are mobilized to serve those in need. 

When we thought we couldn’t be any more amazed, we meet Ada Liz Luciano. A fiery, energetic, and tell-it-like-it- is ruling Elder of the Primera Iglesia Presbiteriana en Añasco (First Presbyterian Church of Añesco). Ada was elected to serve on the Session after the church experienced an internal split, with the Pastor leaving under painful and hurtful circumstances. 

Then Maria happened, and Ada Lis put to use all of her skills and training as a nurse and as a child of a military officer. She mobilized a group of military veteran volunteers to check on residents living in the surrounding mountainside, a region cut off from electricity, water, and necessities due to mudslides and downed lines and trees. 

The Session and Ada Lis have organized and distributed donations including water filtration systems, medical supplies, and weekly portions of food. Ada Lis and her team of volunteers continue to travel through the 22 barrios of Añasco, ensuring the most vulnerable residents are taken care of. To this day, over 25% of the residents are still without power, and those who do have power are being charged exorbitant amounts by the PR Power Authority. The once struggling church of 12 members have found its calling and healing in being a place of care and concern for its neighbors. 

This is only a small window into the ways Wilmary and Ada Lis have spent their lives on behalf of the hungry and needy. They remind me so much of the women who followed Jesus with courage and intensity. The gospel of Luke names three of these women — Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and Susanna — and Luke tells us that these women and many others “provided for them (the disciples and those Jesus healed) out of their resources” (Lk 8:3). 

Today, I celebrate the women who are called to faithful leadership. To Mary, Joanna, and Susanna, I add Wilmary and Ada Lis as fearless and bad*ass women of God. 

Grace and peace,

Rev. Kathy 

Posted by Rev. Kathy Lee-Cornell with

Puerto Rico Day 2: A different kind of Lent

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Part of our deep dive into the Puerto Rican Presbyterian churches and their experiences during and after the storm involved meeting with pastors, congregation members, and Presbytery leaders. They shared with us how Hurricane Maria impacted their personal lives — losing power in their homes until January, losing family members due to the stress of the storm, and losing residents to the mainland due to loss of homes, jobs, and opportunities on the island. 

They also shared with us how the storm impacted their spiritual lives. Rev. Adolfo Santana and Rev. Edwin Gonzalez Castillo recalled how the lectionary readings in the weeks after the storm followed the story of Moses leading the Israelites into the wilderness. Week after week, they read stories of God’s people without food, God’s people without water, God’s people longing to go back to the way things were, God’s people longing for a home.

“There have always been people in crisis, and God continues to speak life,” said Rev. Gonzalez Castillo. 

And the Presbyterian churches have been a source of life for so many residents living in the communities where they serve. They have served meals to the hungry and clothed those who lost their own. Iglesia Presbiteriana Antonio Bandillo Hernandez opened their building to the community as a laundromat and donation distribution center. The Rise and Shine Commission of the San Juan Presbytery hosts events with each of the Presbytery’s congregations. These events cater to the needs of each community — mental health services, job fairs, and dedicated story time for children. One of the congregations make it a point to teach children games they can play that do not require electricity. 

I learned that suicide rates have gone up over 25% after the storm. Each of the pastors said that one of the biggest needs is for emotional and psychological care. When we asked the pastors how they themselves were doing, Rev. Santana paused for a second and with a sigh said, “Surviving.”

Rev. Manuel Silva shared how Lent was no longer a period of passive reflection, but a time where he is constantly wondering what can be done, what will point toward the promise of a resurrected Christ. Lent and Holy Week have taken on new meaning for the pastors here. 

I’ve learned a lot today, and still processing so much more. What will be helpful for you to know today is this: 

There are faith leaders here doing their best to take care of the people of Puerto Rico. If you want to support their efforts to bring hope, connection, and healing, find out what they need first so the real needs will be met. From what I’ve heard, these needs include construction materials, skilled labor, mental health care for adults and children, and advocacy for policies and federal assistance that will encourage residents to stay in Puerto Rico, rather than to leave for the mainland because their circumstances here have yet to improve. 

Thank you for continuing to care and hold the residents of Puerto Rico in your prayers. To say that is has been a challenging six months is an understatement. The needs are tangible and vast, and through these churches and leaders, God’s loving voice remains. 

Grace and peace,

Rev. Kathy 

Posted by Rev. Kathy Lee-Cornell with

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