The Stability of God’s Word
As Puerto Rico continues to recover from the 2017 hurricanes, LCMS missionaries care for people’s long-term needs of body and soul.
“The same as it means to you,” answered Jose.
Standing in Jose’s partially rebuilt house, the Rev. Gustavo Arturo Maita, an LCMS alliance missionary in Mayaguez, Puerto Rico, asked what the crucifix around Jose’s neck meant. His reply led to a conversation about our dwelling in Christ and the promise of our eternal home in the heavens. And in the midst of the ruins of disaster, the hope and light of Christ brought shared joy.
Jose’s response encapsulates the prayer of LCMS missionaries and all those who proclaim the Good News of Jesus to the people in Puerto Rico — to share the same hope in Christ.
In 2017, Hurricane Maria ripped off the roof and destroyed walls in Jose’s house. Now, his roof has been repaired, but some walls are still missing. Maita and LCMS World Relief and Human Care Disaster Response provided for the replacement of his roof. And this day, Maita visited Jose to follow up, to pray and to share God’s promises.
“In every encounter we have with the community, we try to bring the people to the hope we find at the foot of the cross,” said William Torres, a lay evangelist working with LCMS missionaries at Principe de Paz (Prince of Peace) Lutheran Church in Mayaguez. Torres, a native Puerto Rican, started attending Principe de Paz as a teenager, and now he works to bring the Gospel to those in his community.
Dealing with Ambiguity
Puerto Rico is the “island of enchantment.” Her inhabitants are American citizens, yet they live on foreign land. The United States Congress can pass laws that govern Puerto Rico, yet they have no voting representatives. Their currency and postal service are American, yet their heritage and lives are Hispanic.
People come to Puerto Rico for vacation, while many who live here desire to move to the mainland. In this paradise, suicide rates and social problems are soaring. The economy is struggling due to many people leaving after the hurricanes. The economic downturn is exacerbated by many businesses relocating to the mainland.
In many ways, Puerto Ricans struggle with identity. And their struggle is understandable.
Roman Catholicism informs many of the popular and public religious expressions on this island. Yet, Catholicism is often mixed with superstitions or mystical ideas. Often, people look to signs and occurrences in their daily lives to identify God and where they should put their trust. Pentecostalism and its false teachings, which lead people to focus on their feelings and lives as evidence of God’s love, inform many of the modern expressions of Puerto Rican Christianity. And although American missionaries brought mainline denominations, those churches still largely exist as American denominations.
“In every encounter we have with the community, we try to bring the people to the hope we find at the foot of the cross.”William Torres, lay evangelist
The Commonwealth of Puerto Rico received renewed focus by Americans in September 2017, when two hurricanes devastated the island. Irma did not hit the island directly, but it left many without power. Less than a month later, Maria hit and caused extensive damage.
Maria was a major disaster for Puerto Rico, and the effects of the storm are still evident two years later. Puerto Rico’s economy, population and infrastructure were all severely impacted by Maria, and many Puerto Ricans fear their island will never be the same.
“People in Puerto Rico don’t feel like they have an identity because of their relationship with the U.S. It is important for them to know their identity in Baptism and that their citizenship is in heaven,” said Maita. “Especially after the hurricane, the church is spreading the love of Jesus and people in the community are hearing that love and feel loved.”
Serving After Storms
The people of the LCMS responded generously to the plight of Puerto Rico, and the result of that response is renewed mission work and new opportunities for outreach.
Judith Oman, a member of St. Matthews Lutheran Church in Esko, Minn., vacationed in Puerto Rico in 2005. “My heart was broken when I saw Hurricane Maria on the news,” she said. “On Easter Sunday, I saw in our bulletin that our church was coming to Puerto Rico … I knew I wanted to go to help the people however I could.” This past November, Oman served in Puerto Rico on a short-term team with her church.
Much of the damage is still apparent. Even after two years, abandoned buildings and tarped roofs evince the power of the storm. An increase in homelessness, resultant from both the loss of property and the emigration of families to the Unites States mainland, reflects new needs facing Puerto Rico.
Yet, the true damage from the storms is sometimes unseen. Suicide rates have risen dramatically. Depression is a common ailment. Many suffer from emotional and mental trauma as a result. And it is into this situation that LCMS missionaries bring the Good News of Jesus Christ.
“We all suffer. We walk alongside people in suffering,” said Deaconess Christel Neuendorf, an LCMS missionary in Ponce, Puerto Rico. “That’s what Christ did. That’s what we do.”
The immediate response to the hurricane involved meeting essential physical needs, especially through the distribution of food and clothing. After those basic needs were no longer as prevalent, the response moved to helping people with larger needs like roofs and house repairs. Now, the work is transitioning to a focus on people’s longer-term situations.
The first two phases of response provided many contacts within the community, which now provide opportunities for further outreach. This outreach is not always due to direct support given, but it sometimes occurs through contacts in the community who have witnessed the care given by the Lutheran church. In some instances, social workers and care facility directors are welcoming LCMS missionaries to work with the people for whom they care.
“Many groups came to Puerto Rico after the hurricane and were helpful for the first couple of months, and they have moved on to other work in other places. LCMS Disaster Response is working through our two Lutheran congregations to provide a long-term response to care for people whose lives were shattered in the storm,” said the Rev. Dr. Ross Johnson, director of LCMS Disaster Response. “As the church, we also address the spiritual needs of God’s children who were left destitute and in a spiritual crisis after the hurricane. We share the love of Christ with them. People are being baptized, catechized and going to church weekly for the first time in their lives.”
Principe de Paz, in Puerto Rico’s third-largest city, is well-established. Yet much of the work there is new. LCMS missionary Rev. Anthony DiLiberto serves the congregation alongside Maita and lay evangelist Torres.
“Lutheran missiology is entirely incarnational. At its center is our Lord, who gives Himself to His people in particular ways,” said DiLiberto. “The objectivity of the Means of Grace … our Lord coming to us in His Word and Sacrament is the bedrock of our missiology. All that we do here revolves around that.”
The congregation’s work in the community is greatly aided by the CARD (Casa de Amparo y Respuesta a Desastre), which is located on the same property. There, English and music classes, along with continued disaster response, bring people in to learn life skills. And when they come, the Gospel of Jesus Christ is proclaimed through the stories used to teach English and the words of the songs learned.
“Music is good for the soul. We have a lot of people who continue to suffer trauma from the hurricane … and life in general is difficult,” said Ruth Maita, a GEO missionary who teaches music and English at the CARD. “Music is a balm for a soul and an opportunity to share Christ.” The music program is now entering its second year.
Through both music and English instruction, people are equipped for future opportunities and to sing of hope in Christ. In a society where many jobs are from the mainland and many are seeking to move there, English is becoming more important every day.
LCMS mission work in Ponce, Puerto Rico’s second-largest city, began in 2016 with the first service at Fuente de Vida (Fountain of Life) Lutheran Church in January 2018. With the recent purchase of a new facility, the congregation is ready to move and expand outreach to the community. The permanent space opens up new options for ministry as well as the establishment of a new CARD house.
“People are coming into the community of the church, where they receive their identity in Christ through His gifts,” said Christel Neuendorf.
The Rev. James Neuendorf, an LCMS missionary in Ponce, centers his ministry around instruction in the Word between weekly services. In all of this, the Neuendorfs seek to create a community centered on the Law and Gospel. “It just keeps coming,” said James Neuendorf, as he left to make an emergency hospital visit. Much of his time is spent addressing suicidal people and the many who suffer from mental and physical ailments. Fuente de Vida offers the hope that so many in Ponce desperately need.
“I think of our congregation like the woman at the well. She came for physical needs, water from the well. Christ supplied her with even better water, the living water that only He can give. He patiently talked with her, an outsider and outcast, speaking both the Law and the Gospel to her,” said James Neuendorf. “We want the same for our church. Outsiders and outcasts come here for physical reasons, but they encounter Christ through His Word, who offers them living water through Baptism and new life in Him. Then, joyful at this gift, the same people bring the news to others. Ponce has a lot of people who have been marginalized, and this story from John’s Gospel is a wonderful picture of what Christ does with marginalized and sinful people even today, through mercy ministry and evangelism.”
Sometimes this means inviting people into the church. Other times, it involves going places to bring the Word into their lives. The Neuendorfs have laid the groundwork with community leaders and social workers to reach out to people who live in many of the care facilities in Ponce, especially the geriatric centers near the new church location. Often these opportunities result from simple conversations and a willingness to talk and serve as needed.
The people of Puerto Rico, though American citizens, speak Spanish. This means that both Pastors Neuendorf and DiLiberto preach and teach in Spanish, and they both rejoice that the Lord has called them into this field at this time. Both have mission experience in Spanish-speaking countries, and these two good friends share a common love for proclaiming the Gospel to the people in Puerto Rico.
A Gift from God
“He is our helper. He is our comforter,” explained the Rev. Tom Brinkley, pastor of St. Matthews, Esko, during a devotion before English instruction. “He is the one who gives us faith.” Brinkley, who previously served with LCMS World Mission, led the recent short-term mission team in Mayaguez and Ponce.
“Short-term teams are awesome. We need them, and we appreciate them. There is a lot of work involved … but they really help us branch out into new areas with the Gospel and provide manpower,” said Ruth Maita, who coordinated with the team from Esko. “Overall, they bring a lot of encouragement to the field.”
Many of the short-term teams that come to Puerto Rico are part of the FORO model, wherein districts, circuits, congregations or individuals partner with mission fields to encourage and support the ongoing work. Teams, which visit for a week or two, volunteer to assist however most benefits the mission and the people they serve.
The team from Esko supplemented the music and English classes already begun in Mayaguez and brought those classes to people in Ponce. They also helped with facility maintenance and painting. In all that they did, it was the love of Christ that motivated and shone through.
“I wanted to come to encourage people and to show Christ’s love,” said April Bissonette, a member of St. Matthews, Esko. She brought her teenage daughters with her, so they might experience sharing the love of Christ with people in a different setting.
“Even though there is a separation of language and culture, we are united in Christ,” said Brinkley. “It helps us to realize that if we are willing to go to the ends of the earth, then we better be willing to go next door. … We better be willing and ready to proclaim the message everywhere.”
Through it all, the same message of Christ echoes. “Things in Puerto Rico today are pretty unstable. There is a lot of uncertainty,” said Anthony DiLiberto. “It is our goal to counteract the instability with the stability of God’s Word.” And by the power of the Holy Spirit, to those who hear and to those who proclaim, Christ and Him crucified means the same: hope and salvation.
- About the Synod’s work in Puerto Rico: international.lcms.org/puerto-rico
- Support LCMS Disaster Response’s work: lcms.org/givenow/disaster
Pray with Us
Heavenly Father, You love the people of Puerto Rico. Many there continue to suffer from the results of storms and other difficulties. We thank You for the missionaries and pastors who work in Mayaguez and Ponce to share the Gospel of Jesus Christ with those they meet, even as they serve them in their physical needs. Be with Your church in Puerto Rico, and draw all to hear Your Word, that they may be saved. In Jesus’ name. Amen.
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Dr. Kevin Armbrust
Director of Editorial for LCMS Communications.