Arecibo, Puerto Rico | In October, Southern Baptist volunteers began relief efforts in Puerto Rico after the U.S. territory sustained devastating damage from the one-two punch of Hurricanes Irma and Maria.
The volunteers are working through Southern Baptist Disaster Relief and the North American Mission Board’s (NAMB) Send Relief initiative, but their work is unlike other Disaster Relief projects.
“The circumstance is so unusual that we have to take the full responsibility of this response on our own,” said David Melber, president of Send Relief. “That means buying and shipping the food, renting warehouse space, sending the kitchen equipment, and then providing the volunteers to do the cooking. We are forging our entire response by ourselves.”
Chicago church planter Dave Andreson spent a week in Puerto Rico as a trained Disaster Relief chaplain. Andreson, a U.S. Army veteran, couldn’t shake the growing burden he felt for the island. “I had to get there,” said the pastor of Resurrection City Church in Chicago’s Avondale neighborhood.
While plans to send volunteers to Puerto Rico were on hold immediately after the storms, Andreson attended a two-day Disaster Relief training at Lake Sallateeska Baptist Camp in southern Illinois. One week later, with Baptist volunteers able to get into Puerto Rico, Andreson boarded a flight from Chicago to San Juan.
He served with a Disaster Relief team from Virginia in Arecibo, a city 50 miles west of San Juan in northern Puerto Rico. The team stayed at First Baptist Church there and spent their days cleaning out homes and removing downed trees. Andreson said the teams are working under the leadership of local pastors who understand the people and needs in their communities.
Since the hurricanes, Andreson said, many people are leaving Puerto Rico. Their workplaces are still without power, most schools are still closed, and if you have running water, it’s not safe to drink. FBC Aricebo has already lost about 40 people. One church planter Andreson talked to is worried his young congregation won’t survive.
But the Chicago pastor said he believes Puerto Rico is primed for the gospel. “Physical suffering makes us aware of physical need, and those physical needs always open the door by which the word of God, the gospel proclaimed, makes us aware of our spiritual need,” Andreson said.
“This is a horrible thing that happened, but it’s a good gift from God by which the gospel will go forward. Now more than ever, the church in Puerto Rico, the church of Jesus Christ, has an opportunity to shine the light of Christ.”
The punishing hurricane season has left its mark in other parts of the U.S., including Florida and in Texas, where Illinois teams have served in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey. For more information about Illinois Baptist Disaster Relief opportunities and training, go to IBSA.org/dr. To learn more about opportunities in Puerto Rico through Send Relief, go to sendrelief.net.
– Meredith Flynn, with reporting from NAMB