News and Views

Bishop: Puerto Rico rises with church’s help

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By Heather Hahn
Nov. 7, 2017 | LAKE JUNALUSKA, N.C. (UMNS)

Puerto Rico is rising up from the devastation of Hurricanes Irma and Maria, but the U.S. territory continues to need The United Methodist Church’s help.

Bishop Hector Ortiz shared that message Nov. 6 after dinner with the denomination’s Council of Bishops.

Ortiz leads the Methodist Church of Puerto Rico, which is an autonomous denomination that continues to have close ties with The United Methodist Church. Ortiz is a member of the Council of Bishops, which is meeting Nov. 5-8 at Lake Junaluska Conference and Retreat Center.

“The spirit of our people is not destroyed,” he said. “The people of Puerto Rico are resilient. Led by the Holy Spirit, we are rising up.” But, he added, “We can’t do it alone.”

He pointed to the ways church members are already helping the long recovery. With the support of the United Methodist Committee on Relief and several United Methodist conferences, Ortiz said, the Methodist Church of Puerto Rico is providing essential supplies, health clinics and pastoral care to a storm-swept people. (The Baltimore-Washington Conference has a partnership relationship with the Methodist Church of Puerto Rico and recently contributed $50,000 to relief work there.)

Portrait of Bishop Hector Ortiz by Kathleen Barry, United Methodist Communications.

Portrait of Bishop Hector Ortiz by Kathleen Barry, United Methodist Communications.

“At the same time that our congregations are responding to immediate needs in their communities, we are drafting a comprehensive, strategic plan with the help of UMCOR that will focus our work,” he said.

Ultimately, he expects his church to be “a catalyst of hope for the community in the months and years to come.”

The bishops heard updates from Ortiz as well as United Methodist bishops whose areas suffered the recent hurricanes.

One thing is certain: Recovery is just getting started in the hurricane-wrecked parts of Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico.

Bishop Robert Schnase, who leads the Rio Texas Conference where Hurricane Harvey made landfall, described the paradox many areas encounter in the wake of disaster.

A huge number of people are eager to help as soon as disaster strikes, but it’s too soon for churches to know what they will need. By the time churches are ramping up a response, Schnase said, the interest in helping has dwindled.

Nevertheless, he stressed, the need for volunteer teams is only getting bigger after this year’s hurricanes, earthquakes and wildfires.

“Friends, you have our conference, you have the Texas Conference, you have the Florida Conference, you have Puerto Rico, you have Mexico City, you have the West,” he said. “It’s time to get in the game if you are looking to make a difference.”

The needs are particularly acute in Puerto Rico, whose 3.5 million residents are U.S. citizens.

Puerto Rico was already reeling from Irma when Maria made landfall Sept. 20 as a Category 5 hurricane — bringing with it 175 mile-per-hour winds and 40 inches of rain.

“The official death toll stands at 53,” Ortiz said. “However, we are certain this number doesn’t even come close to reality.”

The storm left more than 250,000 homes damaged and more than 100,000 destroyed, Ortiz said. The island lost power, running water and communications.

About 30 percent of the Methodist churches on the island suffered damage with 10 percent not safe for use, Ortiz said.

As of Nov. 7, nearly 60 percent of the island still had no power and many residents had no access to clean drinking water, according to media reports.

Since the storm, some 100,000 Puerto Ricans have evacuated to the U.S. mainland, 80,000 of them to Florida, Ortiz said. United Methodists in Florida and other conferences are working to welcome the evacuees.

Ortiz asked his fellow bishops to help in the following ways: Pray without ceasing, show hospitality to Puerto Rican evacuees, mobilize volunteer teams for the long recovery ahead, and advocate to the U.S. Congress to help rebuild Puerto Rico’s infrastructure.

The bishops also decided to take an additional step. During worship services Nov. 7 and 8, the council is collecting a special offering for the Methodist Church of Puerto Rico and United Methodist Committee on Relief to aid in the island’s recovery. On Nov. 7, the bishops and guests at the meeting gave $9,000.

“Friends, se levanta,” Ortiz said before repeating in English, “Puerto Rico is rising up.

“Together, we will rebuild homes, we will transform lives and we will renew communities to give Puerto Rico a future with hope from God.”

Hahn is a multimedia news reporter for United Methodist News Service. Contact her at (615) 742-5470 or  . To read more United Methodist news, subscribe to the free Daily or Weekly Digests.