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Baptist relief volunteers encounter ministry opportunities in Puerto Rico

SABANDA GRANDE, Puerto Rico (BP)–Johnny Pagan was serving, appropriately enough, as captain of the local Civil Defense unit when Hurricane Georges began pounding Puerto Rico Sept. 21. He was able to get his family out of their small home in the foothills above Sabanda Grande, a small city in the southwest corner of the island, just 15 minutes before the storm struck.
Like many other residents not fortunate enough to own houses built entirely of concrete, Pagan returned after the storm to find his home destroyed. Now in temporary quarters with furniture and clothing provided by the American Red Cross, Pagan spends much of his time at a small community center near his home — one of five sites in Puerto Rico where Southern Baptist disaster relief volunteers have prepared thousands of meals daily.
“A lot of people were just getting cookies and crackers or whatever,” Pagan said of the days before the kitchen was set up in cooperation with the Red Cross. “We were feeding the people in the shelters, but there are a lot of people [able to stay in their homes] that have not been able to cook. … They [disaster relief volunteers] are doing a wonderful job.”
Southern Baptists had operated feeding kitchens in Puerto Rico for about a month. The five units were being withdrawn beginning Oct. 21 as some cooking responsibilities are transferred to the National Guard and power was restored in more areas.
The Sabanda Grande site was the second location for the Georgia unit. The kitchen earlier had been set up at another town located further in the mountains. As needs there diminished, they were relocated to where the needs were greatest.
“When the community gets together and power and water becomes operational, what they do is move to another place,” said Rafael Rodriguez a North American Mission Board missionary who serves as disaster relief director and volunteer coordinator for Southern Baptists in Puerto Rico.
Construction practices have been one factor in limiting the impact of the storm, which for many has been felt mostly through the extended interruption of electrical and water service. Building codes generally call for concrete construction all around — floors, walls and flat roofs. Hurricane winds generally do not affect them and, unlike in the United States, flood damage is often limited to building contents.
Damage generally has been limited to buildings where costs have been kept down by building with wood. It costs about $5,000 to buy materials for a modest home of wood, Pagan said, while a concrete home might cost $25,000.
In a sense, Pagan said, residents had become complacent about the dangers of hurricanes, having escaped numerous near-misses in recent years. As Civil Defense director, he saw how it had become like “the boy who cried wolf” from the popular fable.
“We cried hurricane, hurricane, then there was no hurricane. But when it came, no one was ready.” Conversely, he said individuals were ready in the sense that when the storm actually hit, people generally had found adequate shelter. Several of the dozen or so deaths actually were stress-related, including heart attacks by people in shelters.
Meals prepared by Southern Baptists in Puerto Rico primarily have gone not to refugees in shelters but to residents without electricity for cooking.
In the northern town of Arecibo, volunteers from North Carolina cooked as many as 2,400 meals each day. About a third are distributed on the food line outside, but the other two-thirds are trucked by civil defense forces to feed those in the mountains.
Water was eight feet deep in the streets of Arecibo, but it was in the mountains where mudslides and high winds caused the most destruction, said Shirlowe Powell, captain of the disaster relief team.
“Up in the hills we hear that people have lost everything – their bedding, their clothes, their linens,” he said, noting that Red Cross volunteers are responsible for interviewing victims and assessing needs.
At Hosanna Baptist Church in Canovanas, church members played a strong role in relief efforts of a Texas disaster relief unit. It’s not a Southern Baptist congregation, but their members were no less eager to help out, said Dick Talley of Dallas, the unit’s director.
“The people here have such a warm spirit,” he said. “They are community-oriented and loving … and the support we’ve gotten from them has been fantastic.”
One church member they call “Mamasita,” for instance, has not only been a tireless volunteer around the site but has also served as their chief cook. For a crew more familiar with making chicken and dumplings than highly seasoned beans and rice, such assistance has been invaluable, Talley said.
The local church involvement also provided an opportunity for direct ministry, as church members would help deliver food to residents impacted the worst by the flooding. “Those people generally are not church-going people, and they are the ones that we are trying to witness to and get them up here to church,” Talley said. Church members, he said, have seemed to recover quicker than non-believers — possibly because their lives are more stable overall.
One member, a college student named Joseph Moulier, has served as a volunteer at the feeding unit since it opened. Each day he delivers food to area residents, including one mother with six children he has made a special opportunity to reach.
“Every opportunity I have I tell her we are here to serve them as a church, and talk with her about spiritual things,” Moulier said. “It’s a good opportunity to witness.”

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  • James Dotson