by Rafael Reyes -
Social media and the news have an uncanny way of distracting us from the truth. With the bombardment of flashy videos and comments from highly visible persons, we are left with raw emotions and the inability to fully digest world issues, which need us to be present as part of the solution. Also, with the vast amount of information passing around in the news, it is so easy to get overloaded by it all; the shock is just too much.
But there are times that, through the thick fog of media and news, one gets a glimpse of the truth that is speaking to us, as a whole. Like the text of the woman Jesus picked out of the crowd (Matthew 9:20–22, Mark 5:25–34, Luke 8:43–48):
“…in the midst of all the people pushing and standing around Jesus, it is the woman he noticed. It is this pull and tug that grasps not only the physical feelings, but more so tugs upon the spiritual.”
To take it in spiritually really means to slow down, to see past the rushing images, and look at what is really happening: the problems that seem to be pushed aside for a sense of assurance. In the case of Hurricane Maria and its effects on Puerto Rico, the sense that the U.S. Government is doing the best they can may give us a sense of assurance, but is a far cry from the reality of the matter (see this article on White House reports vs. ground reports in Puerto Rico).
I hope this article speaks to you. It is something that is serious and encourages us to ask the really deep questions of: “What can we do as individuals?”, “What can we do as a local community?”, and “What can we do as Disciples?” Your response will be the answer.
On September 20, 2017, the category 4 Hurricane Maria made landfall in the urban and rural areas of Puerto Rico. Most of the electric power grid and telecommunications network were knocked offline. Towns both inland and on the coast were swamped with floodwaters and storm surges; the lush green landscape turned brown from damaged vegetation and mud and debris deposits. What was once a getaway for tourists is now a place where locals are picking up the pieces.
More than a month has passed since the hurricane, however as of this moment, 83% of the island (or roughly three million people) still remain without power. Many homes are running on generators, but this requires gas, and there is a set limit on how much gas a person can purchase. As of this moment, 20% of the gas stations are closed, with no timeline as to when they will reopen. It will be months before services are restored to Puerto Rico’s power grid; this means months without water, which increases the risk of contracting waterborne diseases; months without air conditioners that are desperately needed on a tropical island, which increases the risk of heatstroke; and the inability to dispose of waste. This is not even taking into account the power needed to run hospitals.
Everything runs on electricity. Hospitals run on generators, but with the lack of fuel around Puerto Rico, there is the reality that they may not have what is required to support all patients. It is critical to consider that to provide hospital services, power is required; this includes administering dialysis, refrigerating insulin and other medicine, and maintaining nebulizers to help with asthma patients.
Water issues remain, as potable drinking water is still scarce, and there is an increased risk of disease from bacteria in the water. As of October 12, four people have died and 10 were sickened with leptospirosis, a bacterial illness spreading in the aftermath of the storm through contact with contaminated animal urine either directly or via water or soil. The scarcity of water accounts for over 35% of the Puerto Rican community, roughly one million persons. Many have resorted to bathing in rivers, as no water can reach their homes due to the lack of power. The hurricane has forced residents to use their creativity to try to function without many of the luxuries of today's world.
In addition to water and power, the agricultural sector of Puerto Rico was destroyed in the hurricane. It wiped out 80% of the crop value of Puerto Rico, a $780 million loss, which means an even more continued reliance on the import of food, which, prior to the storm, was 85% imported. The loss of the crops will only increase dependency and increase food shortages on the island.
Additionally, besides power and water being severely affected, modes of communication that we take for granted are unstable or nonexistent. Consider the cell phone. Hurricane Maria decimated 1,360 of the island’s 1,600 cellphone towers. The hurricane also brought down 85% of above and underground phone lines and internet cables. One can only imagine what it is like when he and she is unable to communicate with a loved one. One can only begin to imagine the issues that arose after the storm; when no one was able to contact families for several weeks and had to result to walkie-talkie type services on their phones in hopes of getting some message across to anyone on the island able to receive.
Economic Pressure and the Inability to Rehabilitate
In an effort to help with the current catastrophe that occurred in Puerto Rico, many ships have been sent to the island's ports to provide water, food, and supplies. Yet they are unable to move the resources from the ships due to certain U.S. policies that control and weaken the Puerto Rican economy, and its ability to rehabilitate after the hurricane. In other words, it is too expensive to get the resources needed to meet the needs of the island.
Certain U.S. policies have contributed to Puerto Rico’s economic deterioration. One of them is the Jones Act, a law that forces Puerto Ricans to pay nearly double for U.S. goods through various tariffs, fees, and taxes. The act stipulates that any goods shipped from one American port to another must be on American-made and -operated ships. When taking into account that the island imports 85% of their resources from the United States, one begins to see the compounding dilemma that the island is in.
Taking A Spiritual Step Aside
I lament for Puerto Rico. I lament that my family and my culture are fighting for their survival, using their creative potential to make it through each day. I lament at the reality that many will die due to the lack of resources; children, the elderly, those who have illnesses and need medical attention. I lament because this event reveals the power of Mammon to dictate how humanity, who are controlled by greed and material wealth, will respond.
Matthew 6:24 reads, “No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.” It's not that wealth is a bad thing in itself, but rather its glorification, which ultimately replaces the God of the Bible, the God who invites us into the mystery of solidarity and the pursuit of justice in all its forms. For to love God, to seek the divine, is to love your neighbor (Matthew 25:40-45).
Something as catastrophic as Hurricane Maria should foster acts of empathy and compassion, rather than selfish acts of economic opportunism. It should result in the process of restructuring in order to strengthen the economy of the island and its infrastructures that provide basic services. Instead, colonization continues in a new form, where the island continues to be inescapably indebted for the emergency services being provided. The difference between the two, between God and Mammon, can be summed this way: to seek the former requires that wealth and prosperity be used for the service of all, and not for the service of one.
Our Call for Action
So, where do we go from here? There are many ways to respond in this crucial moment. Although the people of Puerto Rico are grateful for the solidarity displayed in the midst of this, what we need, as the Christian Church, is to move to action. There are various ways to support the the people of Puerto Rico, in their efforts to rebuild themselves:
Give: Week of Compassion Response (Disciples of Christ) - https://docgeneralassembly.webconnex.com/weekofcompassion
Pray: Here are a few meditations and words of encouragement to keep you going - http://disciples.org/tag/puerto-rico/