Dec 02, 2022 | By John W. Coleman

The Rev. Nicolas Camacho led his seventh mission team of Eastern PA volunteers to Puerto Rico Nov. 5-12 to help residents there recover from the widespread destruction caused by Hurricane Maria in 2018. The ramshackle, storm-damaged house they transformed into a livable home was the most challenging of 18 he’s worked on so far, he said. But there were also a few lives transformed during that week as well. 

The seven-member team of skilled and unskilled workers was supposed to work on a church in the island’s southern region. But that project lacked the needed tools and materials to repair the metal roof. So, they worked instead on a home in Camuy that belonged to a church family whose adult son was staying there alone with no income and no electricity or running water. Its dilapidated condition and the constant rain they endured made this trip a most challenging one.

The November 2022 Mission Team arrives in Puerto Rico. From left: Izzy Gonzales, Dave Dempsey, German Gabriel Rodriguez, Miguel Pichardo, Javier Ruiz, Imam Elsayed Elmarzouky and Rev. Nicolas Camacho.

When they began work on Monday morning, they first repaired beams and holes in the zinc-covered roof in under four hours, finishing just minutes before a rainstorm erupted. Then they rewired the house for electricity, purchased and installed new doors and windows, replaced pipes to get water running again, painted rooms, purchased and installed a new toilet, and replaced a broken bed and ruined mattress.

In fact, they did much more in five days, even purchasing some furnishings with their own funds. When they finished, the destitute young occupant was in tears and his family and fellow church members were both grateful and amazed. “He asked his pastor, ‘Who did all this for me?’” Camacho recalled. “And the pastor answered, ‘The people from Eastern Pennsylvania.’

“At the end of the week, it was a great blessing and a fulfilling experience,” said the seasoned mission team leader. 

Indeed, the blessing extended to members of the team, both veterans of previous mission trips and first-timers. Camacho, a native of Puerto Rico, led his first team there in November 2018, working in Camuy soon after Hurricane Maria struck and devastated much of the island. He has returned to work in various communities each November and has also led or helped send teams in the spring.

Returnees this time included Miguel Pichardo and German Gabriel Rodriguez, both members of Nuevo Creacion (New Creation) UMC in Lancaster. Joining them were two other longtime friends of Camacho, both members of the Reading Police Department, where he supervised police chaplains for years. Javier Ruiz is a deputy chief with 25 years on the force, and Izzy Gonzales retired from there and is now a successful Berks County real estate broker.

Also, joining them—to Camacho’s surprise—was another longtime friend, Elsayed Elmarzouky, Imam and President of the Islamic Center of Reading, a politically influential leader serving Muslims in Berks County. They became friends after the terrorist attacks on the U.S. in 2002.  

“We met after 9/11 when the Muslim community in Reading was being targeted with threats,” Camacho recalled. “Some of us clergy came to their defense. As they were saying their daily prayers at the masjid, we were in the back of the building also praying for them. Elsayed and I developed a relationship that has continued to strengthen over the years. Then he became one of my Reading Police chaplains. He was always inviting me to go with him to Egypt and visit his home there, but I wasn’t able to go.”

At age 72, this was Elmarzouky’s first mission trip ever. “He had never held a paint brush or roller in his hand or done this kind of work before,” Camacho said. “We taught him how to hold and use the paint brush and roller, and he worked enthusiastically. He said he had the experience of his life; and he told us, ‘This is my first time on a mission trip. I never realized how much I’ve missed in life. Being here has helped me to humble myself more than ever.’

“We accepted him on the team, even though he had none of the skills needed,” said Camacho. “But he was very sincere. I told him to just come and have this experience for himself, even if he could only perform menial tasks.”

When the hard-working imam, who has cancer, grew tired, team members would tell him to rest, said Camacho. “And we were all respectful of his faith practices and his need to do prayers at certain times of the day and evening. It was such a good, new experience for him. He told us, ‘When I get home, I’m going to tell my wife about this.’

“I took a chance on bringing several of the guys on this team despite their medical conditions and lack of skills,” said Camacho. “But I prayed and said, ‘God you know everything. We are in your hands. I will never say no to whatever challenge you send me to do.’”

EPA members and churches have supported these costly mission efforts through designated gifts to the conference’s ongoing Disaster Response Fund. But that support has waned over time understandably, as new hurricanes and other disasters have claimed donors’ attention.

Camacho, a former Army chaplain who retired from West Lawn UMC’s pastoral staff and from his longtime job with the Reading school system, has sought funding elsewhere. And mission teammates who join him always have to pay their airfare and help with the onsite costs, including lodging, transportation and meals.

A Dewees grant and Volunteers in Mission funds from EPA helped fund this most recent trip, along with some support from churches. But finding that support is getting harder for Camacho each year, and he has considered making his next trip, in November 2023, his last. Fortunately, a church in Kennett Square has offered to help fund that trip.

“What an amazing offering of self you have given to Puerto Rico,” said the Rev. Evelyn Kent Clark, South District Superintendent, who helped secure that support for 2023. “You took on difficult tasks that you didn’t have to do. You left a house that had no water with water, and no electricity with electricity. You and the team gave of your knowledge, energy, skills, time and most importantly, yourselves. Thank you for your service.”

Camacho is also grateful to EPA’s leaders and churches. “On behalf of our teams, I thank you for your support during these past five years and in 2023,” he wrote in a message to the Cabinet. “It has been an honor and a blessing to serve.” 

To learn about previous financial support and VIM trips to help Puerto Rico recover from Hurricane Maria, see multiple articles on our “Puerto Rico”
search page. You can continue to support EPA’s recovery efforts there by giving to the conference’s Disaster Response Fund, Advance Special #0345, and designating your gift for “Helping Puerto Rico.”