Eastern PA committed to ‘Helping Puerto Rico Rise Again’

By John W. Coleman

With a new missional fundraising campaign underway to support Puerto Rico’s recovery from hurricane devastation, Eastern PA Conference leaders plan to tour Methodist churches and their communities there in February, bringing much-needed prayers and financial aid raised in our conference.

The East District raised nearly $3,000 in a Clergy Cook-off culinary competition on Saturday, Jan. 20, at Huntingdon Valley UMC. The lively, well-attended fundraiser—featuring 20 savory dishes prepared by clergy and voted on by ticket-buying guests—benefitted the conference’s new “Helping Puerto Rico Rise Again” campaign to raise $100,000 by Annual Conference in June.

The district office has received $4,200 in donations so far, “with more on the way towards our goal of raising at least $20,000 for the relief effort,” reports the Rev. Tracy Bass, Superintendent. The North District has raised nearly $59,000 in general hurricane relief donations since last fall, including $7,000 delivered to Bishop Hector Ortiz, leader of Puerto Rico’s Methodist Church, in December.

At the East District Clergy Cook-off, Jan. 20, the Rev. William Brawner (right), pastor of Haven-Peniel UMC Philadelphia, serves a taste of his winning Strawberry-Banana Pudding to the Rev. Dorry Newcomer, pastor of Newtown UMC, observed by the Rev. Mark Salvacion, pastor of Historic St. George’s UMC Philadelphia, and his wife Frances. Brawner won first place and Salvacion won second in the culinary competition to benefit the conference’s Helping Puerto Rico Rise Again campaign. John Coleman photo

A six-member team, including three Cabinet members, will travel there Feb. 14-23, as guests of Bishop Ortiz, to visit pastors and members of some of the 96 Methodist churches, 33 of which were damaged. They will gather information and stories of struggle, survival and ministry, join their hosts in prayer, fellowship and worship, and offer more donated funds and needed supplies.

District superintendents the Rev. Irving Cotto, the Rev. Tracy Bass and the Rev. Bumkoo “BK” Chung will be accompanied by the Rev. Nicolas Camacho of West Lawn UMC Reading, the Rev. Herbert Coe of St. Daniel’s UMC Chester and Andres Cotto, Irving Cotto’s son. Camacho leads the task force planning the conference’s coordinated support for Puerto Rico’s recovery efforts.

For our “Helping Puerto Rico Rise Again!” campaign, please make checks payable to the Eastern PA Conference and indicate “Fund #0345PR–Puerto Rico Hurricane Relief.” Thank you!

The “Helping Puerto Rico Rise Again” campaign launched in January to help the autonomous Methodist Church of Puerto Rico (MCPR) repair church facilities, support beleaguered pastors and fund recovery efforts in their communities. Two hurricanes—first Irma, but especially Maria in mid-September—wreaked vast destruction and caused unprecedented losses and misery. Four months later, about 450,000 people—covering about 40 percent of the island, especially in mountainous rural areas—still lack stable electrical power and other necessities.

Federal aid to the Caribbean U.S. territory has been slow and inadequate by many accounts, further hampered by crippling debt and bankruptcy, harsh repayment demands, bureaucratic inefficiencies and general mistrust between Puerto Rican authorities and the U.S. government.

“The scale and scope of the catastrophe in Puerto Rico in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria knows no historic precedent,” Governor Ricardo Rossello pronounced while requesting $94 million in federal emergency disaster aid, an amount unlikely to gain full approval.

Meanwhile, numerous companies have ceased operations, countless jobs and homes are lost, crime and suicides have risen sharply, and more than 100,000 residents have escaped to resettle on the U.S. mainland—including more than 2,000 in our region of Pennsylvania. That number may double over time if the island doesn’t recover soon enough, thus making its recovery even more daunting.

So “Helping Puerto Rico Rise Again” is not just a feel-good slogan but an urgent call and quest for United Methodists and others concerned for the fate of the island and its struggling residents. The UM Committee on Relief has received over $7 million in donations for general hurricane relief and sent more than $100,000 to Puerto Rico. UMCOR is also helping with preparations for Volunteers in Mission teams to come there to do repairs and reconstruction.

But funds available to help churches repair facilities to serve their communities are limited, which is why the Eastern PA Conference campaign will focus on their needs.

The planning task force held its second meeting Jan. 11 and will meet again March 12 and receive a report with recommendations from the visiting team. Other members include Bishop Peggy Johnson, who first convened the group; leaders of the conference’s Latino Commission; the Rev. Anita Powell, Connectional Ministries Director; and the Rev. Lou E. Troester, lll, who has co-led mission volunteer groups to Puerto Rico for 28 years and worked on upgrading Camp Corson in Jayuya, a Methodist recreational camp founded in 1961. Named for Bishop Fred P. Corson, who led the Philadelphia Episcopal Area from 1944 until 1968, it too is heavily damaged and in need of substantial repairs.

The task force is also concerned about reports of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder suffered by adults—especially pastors—and children and youth. Irving Cotto may have found evidence of that possibility during his late December visit to the island. He accompanied other members of the United Methodist Hispanic/Latino caucus MARCHA, led by its president, the Rev. Lyssette Perez of the Greater New Jersey Annual Conference.

The team met with pastors near San Juan, the capital city, and in two rural regions, joining them in prayer and worship, singing Christmas carols, providing small monetary gifts, and hearing their stories of struggle and survival.

“One pastor said he had always been a calm person but has begun experiencing panic attacks,” Cotto reported. Another said strong winds now frighten her with flashback memories of the hurricane. “These effects will linger a long time,” said Cotto, who grew up on the island and accompanied his mother on her return home after the hurricanes.

Several Eastern PA churches are planning to send mission volunteer teams to Puerto Rico soon; but the task force hopes to inform them of concerns and conditions before they deploy and go. Teams should contact their district superintendents in advance. All volunteers should receive mandatory Safe Sanctuary training and clearances before going, since they may likely be working around children and youth.

With the Rev. Greg Ellis’ recent departure to work for UMCOR, the conference hopes to hire new Disaster Response and UM Volunteers in Mission coordinators very soon to assist teams with information and coordination.

Read more of the Rev. Irving Cotto’s report and reflections from his recent visit to Puerto Rico, plus other stories in the coming weeks.

For our “Helping Puerto Rico Rise Again!” campaign, please make checks payable to the Eastern PA Conference and indicate “Fund #0345PR–Puerto Rico Hurricane Relief.” Thank you!