A group of volunteers representing North Carolina Baptist Men pause for a moment of prayer in the sanctuary of First Baptist Church of Rio Piedras, Puerto Rico.

Photograph by Jesús García

A hurricane blessing: a 180-degree change in the church’s role
Rev. Laura I. Ayala
September 12, 2018
“To be a religious person, you are cool!” This affirmation was among many received in the aftermath of hurricanes Irma and María—a time when the role of church and faith leaders was challenged by desperate need. This well-intended yet harsh-sounding expression by a young businessman caused me to reflect on his possible reasons for saying it. The unwanted truth behind those words was that the community perceived the church—not to mention the pastor—as alien. The assumption of some is that Christians are judgmental, distant from the need and unfriendly with those considered sinners. They perceive the church as unknown territory—a space down the street that is meaningless to them. It’s a place where people who are different from those in the neighborhood come and go. While church people do good things from time to time, for the most part, they plan programs for themselves. However, his expression was also a confession that his perception, well-founded or not, had changed. How did it happen?
As the first anniversary of Hurricane Maria making landfall in Puerto Rico approaches, Rev. Laura Ayala shares about the impact of the storm, the response by the community and the role of the church in the recovery efforts.
Need brought us face to face with each other: atheist, humanist, Gnostic, Buddhist, Jew, Muslim, Christian—from Catholic to Pentecostal—and all in between. Barriers were down. Stereotypes were broken. “Rebel” college students cleaned debris, cut fallen trees and opened the roads to allow transit. “Unbelievers” became friends. The “other” became our neighbor, moving the community to cook for all the hungry—college students and professors, business owners, neighborhood residents, the homeless, the poor and rich, children and older adults, citizens and those lacking legal status. The community experienced miracles daily. More than 17,000 meals were served from a church kitchen in a three-month period. Thousands of pounds of food (850 grocery bags) kept coming from sources unknown, as we kept cooking it and giving it away. Brothers and sisters came to help from distances of thousands of miles. North Carolina Baptist Men, for example, arrived to purify more than 16,000 gallons of water in 28 municipalities and provide roofing for more than 120 buildings. They continue to serve, helping us to understand major disaster and how to recover from it. Unchurched community members are seeking funding opportunities so that the church can continue to serve. More than $50,000 is needed, for example, for two projects—an eight-week camp for children aged 6-15 and the purchase of solar panels and refrigeration for use in the event of another major disaster. The church has been designated as the community’s operation center for future disasters. People who volunteered during the emergency period regularly ask, “What’s next pastor?” and “How can I help?” And unchurched neighbors are our biggest supporters, allowing the church, during challenging times, to fulfill God’s mission of proclaiming the Good News of Jesus Christ. Over the course of only two weeks, Puerto Rico faced its biggest challenge in the last century—two Category 4 hurricanes back to back. The unprecedented damage to an already fragile infrastructure was certainly a challenge. While it was difficult for the working poor already struggling to survive paycheck to paycheck, it was also a struggle for those with money who were unable to acquire what they needed because banks and stores were closed, gas was unavailable and food was scarce. It was a challenge to the church to open our sacred spaces to all.
As instructed by Jesus, we were moved to become the neighbor in our community. That allowed us to experience God’s love, in us and through us.
As instructed by Jesus, we were moved to become the neighbor in our community. That allowed us to experience God’s love, in us and through us. It has become a big responsibility, as the community is trusting us as “cool” people of faith. These experiences continue to be a blessing, for, as the Lord said to Jeremiah: “Call to me and I will answer you and tell you great and unsearchable things you do not know” (Jeremiah 33:3 NIV).

The Rev. Laura I. Ayala is senior pastor of First Baptist Church of Rio Piedras, Puerto Rico. She will participate in the “Rebuilding, Restoring, Renewing Puerto Rico” panel discussion at ABHMS’ “Space for Grace: Thy Will Be Done,” November 14-16, 2018, in Philadelphia. REGISTER TODAY for this national conference that seeks to explore critical issues of mission engagement, discipleship and church transformation facing Christians today.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of American Baptist Home Mission Societies.

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