The Presbyterian Church (USA) believes that the mission and purpose of the church is to be “a provisional demonstration of what God intends for all humanity.” This is exactly what I experienced on the third day of our Fossil Free PC(USA) delegation to Puerto Rico when we visited Casa Pueblo in heart of Adjuntas. Stepping into Casa Pueblo was like stepping into the gospel story itself – it was a foretaste of the Reign of God.
Casa Pueblo opened its doors in 1980 as a resistance movement began mobilizing to oppose government and corporate plans to authorize open-pit mining in the pristine and geologically unique mountain communities of Adjuntas. Though the hills had proven gold, silver and copper resources, the proposed extraction would destroy both the beauty and bio-diversity of the region as well as pollute the local watershed feeding the Rio Grande de Arecibo. During the long fight against the mining industry, Casa Pueblo provided a much-needed center for culture expression, community empowerment, democratic decision-making, and the sharing of technical information. As Alexis Mossal-Gonzales, the founder of Casa Pueblo, would often say, “Science + Culture + Community = Change.” The first organized event against the mines attracted exactly one person. When, fifteen years later, the government finally decided to permanently ban mining in Puerto Rico, more than ten thousand showed up to celebrate together with song and dance and festivity.
From Protest to Proposal
If this first stage of Casa Pueblo’s mobilization necessarily placed it at the center of community protest, the second stage was one of proposing alternative futures. This was, admittedly, long and hard work. Over the next two decades, Casa Pueblo transformed itself into a center of sustainability and resilience, installing its now famous off-grid solar system, growing and selling local produce, marketing and serving its own coffee, providing a venue for artisan crafts, running a community radio station in a region without stable telecommunications, opening a butterfly garden for children, teaching new methods of agriculture, and offering classes in and a performance venue for art and music. It has also helped establish the first ever community-controlled forest in Puerto Rico, the Bosque del Pueblo, protecting the resources of the region for the future and in which they have opened a forest school for environmental and conservation education. And the list of demonstration projects goes on. Just last year they initiated #50ConSol, a campaign calling for 50 percent of Puerto Rico’s power to come from the sun, “which shines 365 days of the year.”
For all this work, Casa Puebla has received numerous recognitions, including the Goldman Environmental Prize. But founder Alexis Massol-Gonzales would say that he does what he does at Casa Pueblo not only because it is good work and the right thing to do, but because it makes him happy. That happiness is expressed in his easy smile, and the source of that happiness is everywhere evident at Casa Pueblo.
A Solar Oasis
When Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico on September 21, 2017, the island was plunged into a month’s long (and in many places longer) blackout. But the lights at Casa Pueblo remained on. It became what Naomi Klein has called a self-sustaining solar oasis: “Like moths to a flame, people from all over the hills of Adjuntas made their way to the warm and welcoming light.” Casa Pueblo quickly became the center of community renewal. The radio remained on, food continued to be served, emergency health facilities were set up, FEMA applications (which must be completed inline) were able to be filled our and filed, and neighbors could refrigerate life-saving medicine. In the coming months, more than 10,000 free solar lamps were distributed, bringing light into the darkness of every home, and by these lights Puerto Rico saw its future. Casa Pueblo not only saved lives, it offered hope. Hope, not just for surviving the present crisis, but for building a different and better future.
As our group listened to Don Alexis outline the story of Casa Pueblo for us it became clear that just as the miracle of a life-saving solar oasis in the wake of Hurricane Maria was the result of decades of visionary work, so the spontaneous protests that were even then bringing down the Rosselló government were simultaneously the result of decades of social movement work here in Puerto Rico, movement work that includes all the demonstration projects at Casa Pueblo.
Don Alexis told us that the vision of Casa Pueblo – like the uprising of recent weeks - began with two questions. First, “Is an alternative Puerto Rico possible?” Believing the answer to be a resounding and necessary “yes,” the second question became, “How do we do it? How do we bring it about?” Casa Pueblo, he told us, is a lesson in how to make another world possible. And the current Puerto Rican revolution, with 1.25 million people joyously, with dignity and pride, marching in the streets for this better world, shows that it is not only possible, its time has come.
“Faith is not only hope,” he told us, “but acts.”
The Presbyterian Church (USA) has an opportunity to live out its calling to be “a provisional demonstration of what God intends for all humanity” by divesting from fossil fuels at our upcoming General Assembly in 2020. Come join the movement. The time has come.
Submitted by The Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary of White Plains, NY. In 2015, the White Plains Presbyterian Church fully divested from fossil companies identified in the Carbon Underground 200 list, including Exxon, and installed 167 solar panels on its roof as a demonstration project for its neighborhood.
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