Bishop: In Search of a Can of Spray Paint
Bishop: In Search of a Can of Spray Paint
For additional photos from the bishop's tour of Puerto Rico, click here.
Read Thomas Kemper's report, "Puerto Rican Methodists Find Strength in God Despite Massive Hurricane."
My first encounter with a significant natural disaster was in the fall of 1985. Two storm systems converged over West Virginia, with the end result a flood of devastating proportions. Although I was not personally affected by the tragedy, I had several colleagues who were. I mobilized volunteers from my local church, gathered canned food and cleaning supplies, and headed off to eastern West Virginia.
When we arrived in Parsons, W.Va., I observed in the hours and days to follow something altogether new and terrifying. The power of water was in full demonstration as we saw homes that had been washed downstream, empty spots where roads and bridges once existed, churches and businesses that could never be used again.
In each community, we noticed markings and letters on the sides of various homes, businesses, and bridges. They were placed there by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) as indications that those buildings and bridges were condemned. They would later be torn down.
I tried to imagine the feelings of sadness family members might have felt when that designated person took out the can of spray paint and wrote those letters on their home. I couldn’t imagine the frustration that they must have felt when the assistance offered couldn’t begin to match the value of what they had lost.
Still, the markings on the building and the offer of some kind of federal assistance was better than nothing.
Yet, fast forward to today, and that is what I recently experienced – Nothing.
Just a few days ago, I returned from a trip to Puerto Rico with our Global Ministries General Secretary Thomas Kemper. We were there representing our United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) to evaluate the devastating effects of hurricanes Irma and Maria, to set priorities for our church’s response, and to bring a presence of hope to those who have been so severely affected.
In San Juan, we visited Villa Fontana Methodist Church. As it rained, water poured through the gaping holes in the roof of the sanctuary – meaning yet another cleanup would need to take place.
In the community of Playita Cortada, we helped distribute UMCOR cleaning buckets, water, and grocery bags of food to the people. Every home we visited was affected. While there, I talked to Freddie. His garage business was destroyed by the hurricanes. He endured the night when the eye of Maria came on shore and showed me the watermark in his house where 10 feet of water rushed through. He cried when he told me that his wife is still being housed in a church evacuation center because of the unsafe conditions of their home and her fear of returning.
Psalm 84When we visited the Methodist Church in Palo Seco, La Iglesia Metodista Peña de Horeb, no one was there initially. But word spread throughout the community and before we knew it, a small congregation gathered to greet us. They told us the story of their pulpit Bible that was turned to Psalm 84 on the night of the hurricane and how, even though the roof was blown away, the Bible stayed on that same page. As I read that passage from the open Bible (“How lovely is your dwelling place, O Lord of hosts!”), the rain began to fall on us – a reminder of the presence of God and the work that lies ahead.
How lovely is your dwelling place, O Lord of hosts! 2 My soul longs, indeed it faints for the courts of the Lord; my heart and my flesh sing for joy to the living God. 3 Even the sparrow finds a home, and the swallow a nest for herself, where she may lay her young, at your altars, O Lord of hosts, my King and my God. 4 Happy are those who live in your house, ever singing your praise. 5 Happy are those whose strength is in you, in whose heart are the highways to Zion.[a] 6 As they go through the valley of Baca they make it a place of springs; the early rain also covers it with pools. 7 They go from strength to strength; the God of gods will be seen in Zion. 8 O Lord God of hosts, hear my prayer; give ear, O God of Jacob! 9 Behold our shield, O God; look on the face of your anointed. 10 For a day in your courts is better than a thousand elsewhere. I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than live in the tents of wickedness. 11 For the Lord God is a sun and shield; he bestows favor and honor. No good thing does the Lord withhold from those who walk uprightly. 12 O Lord of hosts, happy is everyone who trusts in you.
On the way to the Fred P. Corsen Camp, a site for future volunteer teams, we crossed a bridge that had only days before been constructed by the residents of that region so that they could access food and healthcare. We passed over more power lines than we passed under, demonstrating the reality that the vast majority of the residents of this island remain without power. Those who have make-shift power endure the constant hum of a nearby generator. We navigated our vehicle through mudslides that had been dug out by the residents. The devastation was not confined to any one place on the island and could easily be complicated by the next heavy rainfall.
We traveled north, south, east, and west on our journey. When I left, I had yet to see the first sign of any spray paint.
There were workers on bucket cranes working in some places. Yet, they were not from the government-run power company. They were cable TV workers restoring the lines in anticipation of the power returning someday. We saw no local, territorial, or FEMA workers clearing off mudslides, building bridges, or evaluating home safety. What we did see were live power lines in the road and on the roofs of homes, mudslides ready to break loose again at any moment, and a look of paralysis on the faces of people who didn’t know where to start. What we heard was a consistent remark that the hurricanes passed by nearly three months ago.
Oh, make no mistake, there were construction workers and power company trucks working. We saw them repairing hotels along the oceanfront and power lines in the tourist areas. There was plenty of power to service the cruise ships in port and plenty of supplies to restore the damaged hotels. But beyond that strip of tourism, Puerto Rico is devastated and there is no sign that anyone really cares.
The Commonwealth of Puerto Rico is not a country. It is a United States territory. As such, fundamental rights apply as a matter of law while other constitutional rights are not available. Even so, we claim Puerto Rico as a part of the United States. Puerto Ricans pay into the Medicare system and vote in primary elections. The U.S. dollar is their currency and their passports look just like ours. Puerto Rico is us, and we are Puerto Rico.
But when you visit this island, you quickly notice that this land does not resemble the mainland of the United States. Puerto Rico looks more like a developing country. Poverty is evident in every small community as is the lack of healthcare and sustainable agriculture. And now that a natural disaster of epic proportions has passed through, there is also a lack of sustained governmental response. Yet, we claim that they are ours. This stark inequity suggests otherwise.
I spent my time in Puerto Rico searching for a can of spray paint and a marking that would signal that someone had been there to provide some assessment and that someone would be there to rebuild the island infrastructure as its residents worked to rebuild their homes. I found no evidence that spray paint was being used.
The noticeable absence of emergency management, power companies, and road crews in Puerto Rico will make any church-related recovery effort more challenging. Yet, their absence makes our presence much more valuable and needed. What we provide every time a disaster hits are a sign of hope, a presence of grace, and a gentle reminder that someone, somewhere loves and prays and contributes so that the lives of those affected might get better. That presence, those prayers, and our contributions are needed more than ever to bridge the chasm that is so clearly present.
Any successful recovery effort is a partnership of local people who are complemented by others who join with them to rebuild spiritual hope and physical structures. The absence of one part makes the work of the other part more challenging.
I pray that, given the circumstances and the noticeable absence of some pieces of recovery, we will rise up as a church and do our part to fill the gap and help these our sisters and brothers once again find safe housing, clean water, consistent power, and a dry roof over their heads as they worship.
I went to Puerto Rico searching for a can of spray paint. Even though I found none, I came home with a spirit of determination, searching for a way to keep this recovery effort on the “front page” of our efforts to re-new, re-vive, and re-construct Puerto Rico.
Won’t you join us?
The Journey Continues, …
Thomas J. Bickerton
Resident Bishop and
President of the UMCOR Board of Directors