ORLANDO, Fla. (BP) — More than 200,000 hurricane survivors from Puerto Rico have trekked to Florida for refuge, with several Baptist churches in central Florida at the forefront of ministering to their needs.
“The Florida Baptist Convention is excited to partner with the churches in the central Florida region as they respond to the needs of the Puerto Rican community moving into the area,” said Tommy Green, the convention’s executive director.
Another 100,000 Puerto Ricans are projected to arrive in Florida in the coming months as a result of catastrophic damage from Hurricanes Maria and Irma last September across the U.S. territory.
Most of the influx is happening through the Orlando International Airport, which means that most Puerto Rican evacuees currently are settling in central Florida.
Myles Dowdy, director of the Florida convention’s missions and ministry group, is leading the Baptist response by coming alongside churches as they reach out to new the arrivals.
“We are helping churches by giving them resources to help set up ministries of assistance to the Puerto Ricans,” Dowdy said. All contributions to the convention earmarked for the Puerto Rico effort will go directly to Florida Baptist churches as they respond to the refugees’ needs.
The state convention also is working in conjunction with the Greater Orlando Baptist Association and the North American Mission Board in the response effort.
“This is a result of a crisis, but I see it as an opportunity,” Dowdy said. “God is the only one that can make good come out of something like this.”
“People movements are Gospel movements,” said Emanuel Roque, Hispanic church ministry catalyst for the state convention. If churches can reach just 10 percent of the total number of Puerto Ricans for Christ, he noted, it would be a significant number of new believers at a time when so many are overwhelmed and in the midst of a major life transition.
At Iglesia Casa de Bendicion, where David Pérez is pastor, relatives of church members have started coming to worship services while other churches like Templo Biblico Bautista, pastored by Jose Cardona, are responding to the needs of the new arrivals by donating clothing.
Hispanic churches will play a key role, Dowdy and Rogue said, as they are poised to make cultural connections. But other non-Hispanic churches already are positioned to help like First Baptist Church in Kissimmee and First Baptist Church in Orlando which are both offering Spanish-language worship and Sunday School classes.
First Baptist in Kissimmee also is seeking to connect with the new Puerto Rican families through the local schools, pastor Tim Wilder reported.
Approximately 2,000 new students have enrolled in the Osceola Country School District and another 1,000 are expected in the next couple of months.
The schools receiving the most new students are near the church, which already has a close relationship with them.
“We received 400 names of evacuees from the schools, and our church families each picked a name and bought them a Christmas present,” Wilder said. Church volunteers also are mentoring the new students after school through tutoring and counseling.
And the church plans to start English classes for foreign language speakers to help the parents of the children assimilate in their new environment.
First Baptist Orlando, like FBC Kissimmee, is translating Sunday morning worship services to accommodate Spanish speakers, wanting to help families to worship together, pastor David Uth said. Spanish speakers can utilize a special phone number to call for instant translation of the preaching.
The church’s food pantry also has been able to provide needed relief to evacuees.
Dover Shores Baptist Church is using its food pantry ministry to aid the Puerto Rican evacuees in addition to partnering with other local organizations to help the newcomers find jobs, housing, ID cards and driver’s licenses.
Through the Grace Resource and Training Center located within the Dover Shores facility and staffed by church volunteers, English classes are being provided for Spanish speakers — and Spanish classes for English speakers — to help overcome language barriers.
“We are just really getting started,” lead pastor Jack Parrott said. “We will be doing a lot more.”