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AAEO: Answering the call for help in Jesus’ name

Itamar Elizalde, ministry coordinator for Send Relief Puerto Rico, spends much of her time talking with people in the community and finding ways to meet their needs and share the love of Jesus with them. Puerto Ricans have faced massive needs ever since back-to-back hurricanes hit the island in September 2017. (NAMB Photo/Ben Rollins)

EDITOR’S NOTE: This year’s Week of Prayer for North American Missions in the Southern Baptist Convention is March 6-13, with a theme of United, which is also the theme for this year’s Annie Armstrong Easter Offering for North American Missions. The offering provides more than half of the North American Mission Board’s annual budget and 100 percent of the funds go to mission work on the field. Gifts to the Annie offering are received through local Southern Baptist churches or online at anniearmstrong.com where there are also resources to help promote the offering. This year’s goal is $70 million.

GUAYNABO, Puerto Rico — Itamar Elizalde thought she’d made a big mistake. When the North American Mission Board (NAMB) first opened an emergency food bank during the pandemic, she agreed to list her personal mobile phone number as the contact.

“I got 250 calls, not repeated calls, in about six hours — people looking for food,” said Itamar, who serves as ministry coordinator for Send Relief Puerto Rico. She was getting texts at all hours of the day, and she knew her team needed a new plan.

But before they could make one, she got a text from Rosa, and it simply said this — “I’m all alone. Please help me.”

A few minutes later, Itamar got a second one — “I don’t have food. Please, help. Please, please.”

“It was a series of texts, and I’m just reading this with tears in my eyes,” Itamar said.

She replied and got no response. So, she called, and Rosa answered.

Rosa told Itamar she didn’t have a car and suffered from depression. She didn’t leave her house even before the pandemic hit, and the pandemic had only made things worse. The Catholic church across the street from her had been supplying her with food, but the priest had recently died of COVID-19, and the church shut its doors.

“She said, ‘I don’t know what to do. I have nothing,’” Itamar said.

So Itamar got to work. She asked Rosa where she lived and found out her home was close to one of NAMB’s church plants. Itamar talked with the planter, and he — along with his family — went and dropped off some of the groceries from the food bank.

He prayed for Rosa, and his wife invited her to church.

“That Sunday, they picked her up and brought her to the church,” Itamar said. “At the time, they were only allowing 10 people in the building (at one time), and he said, ‘We made sure she was one of those 10.’ And then she was weeping, and the wife shared the gospel with her again.”

Not only that, she told Rosa that they were willing to walk alongside her and take her through biblical counseling.

So, Rosa said yes — to Jesus and to discipleship.

She’s one of many who have heard the gospel and had their physical needs met through the work of the ministry center, which began operation after back-to-back hurricanes Maria and Irma ravaged the island in September 2017. The center, located in Guaynabo, serves as the offices for Send Relief Puerto Rico and provides housing for volunteer teams, along with hosting the emergency food bank.

Itamar said the needs are great.

Puerto Rico has been in a “dire economic crisis” since 2015, and the hurricanes in 2017 killed thousands and knocked out the fragile electrical grid, leaving most residents without power for months.

Derrick Rudolph (left), a NAMB Journeyman serving in Puerto Rico, prays over a man he and Cesar Guzman (right) met on the sidewalk. Guzman is a NAMB church planter serving at Iglesia Bautista Sobre La Roca (Upon the Rock Baptist Church) in Rio Piedras. Because of the great needs caused by back-to-back hurricanes in 2017, people in Puerto Rico are often receptive to both spiritual and material help. (NAMB Photo/ Ben Rollins)

Two years later, a political scandal brought more hardship, and at the beginning of 2020, six weeks of non-stop earthquakes destroyed hundreds of homes in the southwest.

Itamar moved there in late 2019, right in the heart of the growing need. It was a full-circle move for her — she was born in Puerto Rico, but her parents moved to Worcester, Mass., to plant a church when she was young.

She hadn’t intended to move back, but after spending some years in the criminal justice field and then student ministry, she led a GenSend student team to Puerto Rico in March 2019.

While there, she encouraged her students to pray about coming back for the summer. And what she found was that God was leading her to come back — and stay.

Now Itamar serves as the on-the-ground coordinator for volunteer teams that come in to help with construction projects — work that opens doors to share about the hope found in Jesus. Sometimes that impact is immediate. Other times, it’s laying the groundwork for what’s to come, she said.

“You might not see it, but a few years from now, this person might come to Christ, or this family or a church might be planted here,” she said. “And you get to be a part of that rather than just building a roof. Another hurricane can come and blow that roof away. It goes deeper than that.”

God is at work in Puerto Rico, Itamar said. And in the same way He stirred in her heart to join His work there, He’s been stirring the hearts of others.

“In spite of all this (tragedy), and because of all this, God has begun to move in the hearts of church planters to move their lives and plant churches in a place where Southern Baptists churches were not being planted and were, in fact, dwindling in numbers and influence,” Itamar said. “The Lord has used tragedy to awaken the hearts of many on the island who previously placed their hope on money, family, health and stability and can now see how fleeting it all is in light of the solid-rock hope found in the gospel.”

The Annie Armstrong Easter Offering® provides half of NAMB’s annual budget, and 100 percent of the proceeds go to resource missionaries.  The offering is used on the field for training, support and care for missionaries like Itamar and for evangelism resources.