Just over a week after Hurricane Maria tore through Puerto Rico, reports are beginning to reveal its impact on the island’s Christian community, including more than 1 million Protestants.
Approximately 3,000 churches were damaged or destroyed by the Category 4 hurricane, the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference (NHCLC) estimated. Wanda Rolón, an NHCLC board member and one of Puerto Rico’s best-known pastors, said that she was “not aware of a single church that escaped damage or harm.”
In addition to flooding, downed trees, and buildings ripped apart by 150 mph winds, the storm cut off electricity and communications networks. The Christian TV station, CDM Internacional, as well as several Christian radio stations went off the air. A Bible distribution ministry lost its inventory when its building was hit.
Of about 90 Southern Baptist churches in Puerto Rico, so far the North American Mission Board (NAMB) has heard from a dozen, all of which suffered limited damage, Baptist Press reported.
As relief efforts make their way out from San Juan, local churches serve as a crucial connection point for spiritual and physical support.
“We don’t have buildings right now to have meetings,” evangelist and doctor Luis Paz told CT in Puerto Rico last Sunday. “We are outside, bringing hope to people, the ones that need the most. We have brothers and sisters who don’t have homes right now, but the church is open to them.”
About half of Puerto Ricans go to church at least once a week, according to the Pew Research Center. (Most of the island’s 3.4 million residents are Catholic, and about a third are Protestant.) But some churches haven’t had power since Hurricane Irma hit earlier in the month. Without power, or due to other damage to their buildings, they’re forced to skip regular services or to worship unplugged outside.
The first Sunday after the storm, many Christians opted for impromptu gatherings in houses. In Arecibo, La Iglesia del Centro suffered minimal damage and held one smaller worship gathering. Pastor Gadiel Ríos encouraged members to open their homes for prayer and worship with their neighbors; some in his congregation of 350 have lost everything.
In better-off areas, metal debris and sinuous branches piled up in the streets, soccer fields, and swimming pools; for those who fared worse, the unwieldy piles sit where their houses once stood.
Paz, a minister and medical doctor, traveled to the capital, San Juan, on Sunday—exactly when he’d usually be worshipping with his 1,200-person congregation, Iglesia AMEC Casa de Alabanza—to pick up generators for clinics and request supplies for churches in the northwest.
When Maria made its way through Puerto Rico last Wednesday, he was up at 3 a.m. to do his daily prayers and Bible reading, pausing every few minutes to check the trajectory of the swirling storm.
“We thank the Lord no matter what,” said Paz, who later ended up singing hymns with his family as they scooped water out of their flooded home. “The Lord is not good when Irma started to go out and not good this time [when Maria hit]. The Lord is good all the time.”
The NHCLC partnered with Convoy of Hope to call upon congregation in the United States to sponsor damaged churches in Puerto Rico as well as in Mexico, after its recent earthquake. The NAMB will also facility church partnerships with Southern Baptist congregations, in addition to sending care packages to pastors, Baptist Press reported.
Rolón’s Pentecostal congregation, Iglesia La Senda Antigua, has been collecting and distributing basic necessities like food, formula, and diapers; the church will resume its worship services this Sunday.
Samaritan’s Purse took 200-plus tons of supplies to the Caribbean in September, including cases of water, gas jugs, sturdy blue tarps, and the generators that ended up at Paz’s clinics.
The evangelical relief organization distributes supplies to all who need aid, but coordinates efforts with partner churches. In Puerto Rico, Samaritan’s Purse has connections with congregations that participate in its iconic Operation Christmas Child shoebox program, as well as pastors like Paz who took part in president Franklin Graham’s crusade there in February.
“We know churches are not relief agencies, but they have a role to play when there is suffering and loss,” said Daniel Zeidan, who coordinates partnerships between Samaritan’s Purse and local churches whose communities need aid. “They will be there after we leave. What the church does now will have an impact that will last a long time.”