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San Juan pastor serves meals, Gospel after Maria

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (BP) — Hungry and thirsty two weeks after Hurricane Maria decimated Puerto Rico, the teenage girl approached as Southern Baptist church planter Johnny Baez was serving beans, rice and filtered water.

“I’m hungry and I don’t have nothing at home,” she told Baez, “and I just start walking to see if I find something to eat.”

Baez shared the girl’s story with Baptist Press by telephone Oct. 6, recounting that he persuaded her to accept a meal at his church plant, Iglesia Bautista de la Familia Santurce — the Baptist Church of the Family in Santurce. Baez said the girl thought she was poorly dressed and had been too “embarrassed … to go inside a church.”

Her story is only one in the community of Santurce, one of San Juan’s poorest. The island remains devastated after Hurricane Maria struck Sept. 20 with a wind force just shy of the 157-mph Category 5 storm ranking. While the official death toll from Maria is 36, funeral directors there say the death count might include dozens more, the week.com reported today.

Southern Baptist pastor Felix Cabrera, a member of the Hispanic Baptist Pastors Alliance (HBPA) leadership council, has been in San Juan Sept. 30 to help. North American Mission Board (NAMB) Send Relief leaders and volunteers began arriving Sunday, Oct. 8.

“I know they are trying to do their best to help,” Cabrera said of Send Relief. “At the same time, our efforts as HBPA pastors and churches in the mainland [are] helping pastors and churches in the island. We are desperate to have food in our churches to start serving hot food in the communities.”

In cooperation with the Hollywood, Fla.-based Come Over Ministry, an international church planting outreach led by Colombian native Martin Vargas, the HBPA helped supply 12 power generators for churches. Vargas recruited Banyan Air Service and other private jet companies to transport the generators, Cabrera said.

“Unfortunately, right now we have other generators for churches, elderly homes, and food and water stuck in Ft. Lauderdale,” Cabrera said, “but we [haven’t] found jets to transport these to Puerto Rico.”

Cabrera estimates today (Oct. 9) that electricity has been restored for only 12 percent of the population.

“We have two [types of] Puerto Rico — area metro and the rest of the island,” he told BP today by Facebook messenger. “Area metro is returning to … normal but the rest of the island is without electricity, water, food, medicines, etc. People are trying, they are working hard to move forward,” said Cabrera, who pastors Iglesia Bautista Central (Central Baptist Church) in Oklahoma City, Okla. The church’s Red 1:8 church planting network has birthed two churches in Puerto Rico among 30 internationally, according to RED18.org.

“After Hurricane Maria, my people are like the people of Israel,” Cabrera said. “The remnant there in the province who had survived,” he quoted Nehemiah 1:3, “is in great trouble and shame. The wall of Jerusalem is broken down, and its gates are destroyed by fire.”

Cabrera, working with Vargas and Southern Baptist churches there, hopes to open temporary “Help and Hope Centers” in 12 churches, he said, to serve hot dinners.

“Many of our churches suffered damage. Many of our pastors lost or have damages at their homes,” Cabrera said. “Their church members are in great need and many in our communities are waiting to see the church to rise up and serve those in need.”

Today, Baez’s church plant in Santruce was the only Southern Baptist church offering hot meals. The church began the ministry Oct. 1 and hoped to serve 500 meals in its first week, Baez told BP Oct. 5.

Residents are skilled in adapting to adversity, Baez said, and feel blessed to eat one meal a day.

“They feel blessings because you know at least they are alive, and remember this was a hurricane that hit the whole island. It’s not a corner of this island that is not destroyed or affected,” he said, his sentence stopped by his own sudden tears. “But we are alive, we are alive. God protected lives. They (survivors) say we don’t have food, but at least we are alive.”

Working without government assistance, Baez said, he receives small donations of beans and rice from survivors. A donated two-gallon water filter makes hydrant water potable.

Baez, who grew up in Puerto Rico, noted, “Everybody’s waiting on the donations that come from the United States, but we don’t receive it yet.”

“But people in Santurce [are] not eating, eating bread one time a day and no water,” Baez told BP.

To buy food at the few supermarkets that have reopened, residents must stand in line as long as four hours to make purchases limited to small portions, Baez said. Waiting in the supermarket lines takes Baez away from the feeding ministry, where he is also able to offer the hope of the Gospel.

“I think the best way to [provide food], was asking everybody to give a little bit, a little bit, and that’s the way we do it,” said Baez, working with a multidenominational group of area pastors. “And we get people from everywhere. Pastors … come from far away to bring me rice, three pounds, five pounds, and that’s how we are doing now. They go to the supermarket, they buy a little bit, then they bring it and we cook it.”

“Little by little,” Baez noted, communities will get the help they need.

Maria is the fourth named storm and the third Category 4 hurricane to hit the U.S. and its territories this year. The latest storm, a Category 1 named Nate, struck the Louisiana and Mississippi gulf coasts Oct. 7 and 8, unleashing heavy rain and strong winds. Losses for the 2017 hurricane season will total more than $350 billion, 11 times the average of the past five years, Accuweather.com President Joel N. Myers estimated.