Colorful umbrellas above a street in Puerto Rico.

Photo by Tatiana Rodriguez on Unsplash

Dear Disruption: an instrument of God to launch me to do things differently, to make me stronger for the path that lies ahead.

August 30, 2023

Editor’s note: The following is from the ABHMS luncheon at the ABC Biennial Mission Summit June 23-25, 2023, in San Juan, Puerto Rico. The program, “Testify! Dear Disruption…,” conveyed the power of testifying as a means of achieving spiritual and emotional uplift through difficult periods of societal turbulence. It has been lightly edited for publication.

Dear Disruption,

After having met you, the words of the apostle Paul in 2 Corinthians 4 make more sense to me than ever. This, because for you I can appreciate even more the treasure that God has allowed me to have with the ministry, and for you I could better understand the material of which I am made, clay.

How could I forget when you arrived on March 15, 2020! That Sunday at the end of the service I met with the congregation to inform them of the government-ordered shutdown. How long would that closure last? We did not know, but my hope and that of the congregation was that it would be short since we did not imagine worshiping separately. We had a high sense of community! At that time, I let them know that we would use all means at our disposal to stay connected. I didn’t know what I was saying, as we were barely broadcasting on Facebook Live.

I remember those months before Puerto Rico faced an earthquake and strong tremors that mainly affected the southern area of the island. As part of the relief efforts, I brought a sister in the faith from Chicago who distributed aid to multiple families and churches in the South area. She had a tripod for her cell phone and when we said goodbye, she told me: “pastor, keep this, I will return to Chicago with the minimum.” Neither she nor I knew that this small detail would become the pulpit (podium) that I would use for a long time.

On Monday, March 16, one day after the meeting with the congregation, would be our first virtual prayer service. There was no time to prepare an area or to have a “background.” We did what would be our first live prayer, simply from the dining room of our home with the cell phone and the tripod that they had given us. That was the push to get us out of the nest and force us to do things differently in all our church work. We began to search for different virtual applications to record, edit and upload to social networks. Even an entire Easter campaign! Personally, that leap into the void was an extraordinary help for a series of distance seminars with doctors, psychologists, accountants, and theologians that I would have to work on as part of a doctoral course. Honestly, I wouldn’t have imagined it!

Dear Disruption, after the innovations and after your arrival, the tensions also arrived. With certain limits, the churches could reopen. As a pastor I became a mediator to achieve a proper consensus for a reopening. Some members believed that we should open the sanctuary immediately, others that it was too soon, and others strongly affirmed that we should never have closed. During this, we reached an agreement and on Sunday, July 5, the doors of the sanctuary were reopened, but then another unimaginable process began. It seemed that joy and frustration were embracing each other since we finally saw each other, but protocols and security measures separated us. Staying at a distance was difficult for everyone. So, since medical authorities indicated that outdoor experiences were less risky, we decided to leave the sanctuary again, but this time to the parking lot. Certainly, this was another innovative experience. We made the community part of the worship experience. Although we continued to keep our distance, we could all see each other, greet and worship together.

Paul bet on inner renewal, the one that begins with an encounter with God and that works day by day in us. That was also my reflection to see the work of God—day after day.

That return had its challenges. Some saw the security measures as insufficient, others said that it was an exaggeration. In the end, it was a complicated scenario. The transmission of experiences also brought its challenges. The cameras captured a mask that was lowered, a hug that was not avoided, or someone who did not keep the required distance. Thus began the negative comments and criticisms without knowing the context, even more so, ignoring the efforts made by the leadership to care for the congregation. Honestly, although you arrived with new experiences and you forced us to innovate, I think you brought more tension, painful criticism, and emotional exhaustion. However, before the end of 2020 as “the waters returned to their level,” we were able to finish the new sanctuary where there was more space and, therefore, a greater sense of security.

It seems that everything ended when it was just beginning. In January 2021, when I started another pastoral assignment, I thought that the scenario I would face would be friendlier. Nothing could be further from the truth! The church dragged an internal division, the product of a long closing and after its opening, of a great limitation of spaces in the sanctuary. As if that weren’t enough, tensions had been exacerbated by the elimination of all programming and small group meetings. Those measures were considered by a sector of the church as an absolute control or kidnapping of the life of the church. I felt the weight of everyone’s expectations, as they expected the new pastor to approve or disapprove what had been done—without imagining that my mission between them was one of mediation and reconciliation.

The accumulation of those two years was not easy. I remember that there were those who told me: “Pastor, what a first year!” In some way, these expressions showed the concern of the members towards me and towards the church. However, without anyone knowing, this experience, added to the stress caused by your arrival, made me fall into a depression. I knew that I was not well, until one day my daughter Victoria said to me crying: “Dad, what is wrong with you, I see you very sad?” That comment was the impetus to recognize that she needed help. I was locked up in myself, and although I felt demolished, so I did not seek denominational help, God would not let me be destroyed. My therapist, a mentor pastor, and my family were the divine team to begin to overcome this experience. Then some close friends found out and with this letter, it is the first time that I am communicating it outside of that circle.

Finally, in that same letter and chapter the apostle Paul (v.16-18) reflects on the pain and actions that he and other believers have endured for the sake of the gospel. For them to surrender would be an easy decision, but it would be the worst option. Paul demonstrated that resistance to difficulty is the fruit of the power of God in the life of the believer. It is why he “did not lose heart,” and he demonstrated his resilience in the Spirit.

Before giving up, Paul bet on inner renewal, the one that begins with an encounter with God and that works day by day in us. That was also my reflection to see the work of God—day after day. I’m still in the process, of course, but I am encouraged and strengthened in the Spirit of God.

Dear Disruption, thank you because you were an instrument of God, not only to launch me to do things differently, but also to make me stronger for the path that lies ahead.

Rev. Alberto J. Diaz Rivera is senior pastor, First Baptist Church of Caguas, Puerto Rico, where he collaborates with Baptist College of Caguas and Miracles of Love Corporation. He has served Baptist Churches of Puerto Rico as board secretary and vice president.

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

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