by AmyBeth Willis
Even though Thursday was planned as a day of rest, a portion of our group decided to participate in another march against Governor Roselló. When I committed to this delegation in May, I never could have predicted that I would get to witness the fierce activism of Puerto Ricans in this critical moment of political change. On Monday, we joined 1.25 million Puerto Ricans in taking over every lane of San Juan’s major highway to demand that Governor Ricardo Roselló, or “Ricky” resign. Thursday morning, we woke up to the news that he had finally announced his resignation. So, we wanted to rejoice alongside the Puerto Rican people.
The march was planned for la Avenida de Oro “Golden Avenue” in the Financial District of San Juan, where the Fiscal Control Board is located and where financial companies that have contributed to the island’s debt crisis continue to operate and profit. The Puerto Rican people were never only demanding that one politician step down, but were decrying the continued colonization of the United States through the PROMESA Act in 2016 and to the island government’s deliberate cover-up of the deaths of 4,645 people in Hurricane Maria. So, the people forcing Roselló’s resignation was just the beginning of a larger movement to stop the corruption wholesale and take back the government for the people.
I joined the Fossil Free PC(USA) delegation from Tucson, AZ where I work as the organizer of the Southern Arizona Sanctuary Coalition. As an organizer, I was inspired as I watched the Puerto Rican people mobilize so rapidly and so effectively to demand change. But more than anything, what struck me was the joy of the people. As it started to rain, the march began, replete with large trucks blasting salsa and reggaetón and umbrellas covering the crowd. The people’s pride in their homeland was palpable. Puerto Rican flags were everywhere; some were even attached to adorable dogs! A Puerto Rican farmer rolled up to the march in her tractor, smiling widely. Protestors danced to the reggaeton. Bolstered by the confidence that they had won this fight, the people knew that they can continue to win. In jubilation, they shouted “Somos más, y no tenemos miedo (We are more, and we are not afraid)” and “Lucha sí, Entrega no! (Yes to the struggle and No to surrender!).
Witnessing this level of joy convinced me that we need to cultivate more joy inside movements for social and environmental justice. Movement spaces can become so intense and serious that all the talk is focused on the weight of the injustice at hand. I’ve noticed this as particularly a problem in white-led movement spaces. But this seriousness often gets in the way of the reason we’re fighting: a world where everyone can thrive and shout and dance. Even us organizers! This reminds me of the value of an educational tool called the ‘Hermeneutical Circle, adapted by Latin American liberation theologians. In the practice of acting for social justice, we must first observe, then reflect and pray, and then we act. After acting, we must evaluate our action and then celebrate our wins. But we often forget to celebrate. So, I am grateful for the Puerto Rican people for their display of joy, alongside their continued demands for justice. I see clearly how their joy makes their perseverance possible. They won; and they will continue winning, as they celebrate along the way.
by Emily Wilkes
On Wednesday morning, our group sat in anxious and hopeful anticipation as we drove to Bayamón. Between the protest and Casa Pueblo, the people of Puerto Rico had made us see how the world could be. The world can be a place where an oppressed people rise up and demand dignity from their leaders. The world can be a place where an integration of science, cultural identity, and community can take down multinational corporations. The world can flourish, as can those who live and love in it. We were filled with hope. Anything felt possible.
When we arrived at La Iglesia Presbiteriana en Bayamón, we quickly realized we were again in a space where we could continue riding that sense of hope for how the world could be. As the church happened to be near a hospital, the building was among the first to receive power again after Hurricane Maria. They used this privileged location to be a literal beacon of power and light in their community by offering a much-needed service: laundry. After receiving a few donated sets of washers and dryers, their facility ran day and night as folks from the community came and went.
As power was restored, the laundry ran less and less frequently. Our hosts then turned to their dream of what they hope will come next: a fully self-sustaining house. As our host spoke, my mind wandered to Ferncliff Camp and Conference Center in Little Rock, Arkansas a community dear to my heart that has accomplished this very dream. As it turned out, the leaders of this church had traveled to Ferncliff to receive training from Solar Under the Sun, which trains participants to install solar panels. They received this training with the hope of implementing this knowledge in their own community. My heart was so full to see that the fruits of Ferncliff’s labors are evident throughout the world.
Over lunch, five women in ministry led us through a devotion. We read Romans 8, especially considering “that the whole creation is groaning and suffering labor pains up until now. And we ourselves are suffering these pains…” The women created a space within the context of worship for dialogue, inviting us to share our labor pains and for us to ask about their own. We spoke about how the church can respond to the potential of a new Puerto Rico in the wake of protests. We spoke about how, as the first woman ever ordained in the PCUSA in Puerto Rico told us, they were amazed with themselves over the events from the previous few days: “we made movements that no one believed we were capable of.” They spoke about how overwhelmed with hope they felt in seeing how the national church showed up for Puerto Rico in Maria’s aftermath. They spoke about the difficulties in talking with their congregations about climate change; one woman told us that when she preached on climate change, her congregants hadn’t even received her words as a sermon. However, in speaking about the work of Fossil Free PCUSA, they swelled with pride as they told us that every member of the Presbytery of San Juan supported the overture for divestment in General Assembly - unanimously. We left Bayamón with much of the same hope we had arrived with.
Our meeting in the afternoon took place in Guaynabo with officials from the Presbytery to learn more about the particular context and problems the Presbytery faces. Among these problems is the increasing number of congregants who are leaving for the states, particularly after Maria, and the relative lack of resources to respond more fully in the aftermath.
As soon as I walked inside, I looked to my left and saw a confederate flag sitting on a desk. I showed a few others in our group and we all expressed some shock and dismay. When I asked our guide Michelle about the flag and we turned to the pastor of the church and vice moderator of the Presbytery together, we heard him say, “the solution is worse than the problem.” He was referring to the governor, and it was clear from his words that he, unlike the million Puerto Ricans who marched on Monday, didn’t believe the governor should resign. When we clarified that we had actually been curious about the confederate flag, he said that he had left half of his heart in Alabama, a pastor there had given it to him, and that he had to have it in his church. Though I can’t speak for the rest of the group, I could physically feel my excited hopefulness abating.
He began by beautifully articulating the ways in which Maria had changed him and his community; he said Maria had “made us realize we had to get involved in the church not because of what we get from the church but because of what we can give to the church.” He said Maria “forced us to look...made us realize that we have to depend on each other...forced us to face the unknown…[and] forced me to go to the streets and serve outside the walls of the church.”
He then went on to tell the group that he presented written the minority report against the overture to divest from fossil fuels at the most recent General Assembly. The moderator of the Fossil Free PCUSA, the rev. abby mohaupt, asked him how they could have created the overture to divest from fossil fuels differently to gain his support. Confusingly, he said he does support divestment from fossil fuels, just in a different way than what he believed the overture said. However, the information that he believed was contained in the overture was not actually present in the overture. He then went on to gaslight the group, stating several untrue facts about what the overture contained, and when abby tried to correct him, he never acknowledged her. Instead, he said things like, “What you have to do is…,” and “What you have to understand is…,” and condescendingly explained to her -- someone who is literally working towards her Ph.D. in divestment movements -- how she should proceed differently if she wanted more broad support. Much of what he suggested was what was in the overture at the last General Assembly.
It was a sobering encounter. We were reminded of how much work is still to be done. We were reminded that this movement has to be intersectional, addressing not only the damage done to the earth, but also the harm colonialism and machismo and inflict. We still have hope for how the world could be, in spite of the way that it is. There is still work to be done.
By Ben Shaw
Earlier this year I was blessed to attend Credo, a conference for ministers checking in on our holistic health across several disciplines sponsored by the Board of Pensions of the PCUSA. I’m now a thousand miles and nearly four months removed from that experience but today it keeps coming back to me because of one word: resilience.
Resilience is “an ability to recover from or adjust easily to misfortune or change.” It’s “bouncing back” after a season of adverse pressure. Or as the emotional health faculty at credo said: “it’s bouncing forward.”
Our morning starts quietly at La Casona as we shuffle around, drink our coffee, and get ready for the day before we worship together. And then it’s off to Hato Rey and José’s church there for meetings and discussions.
Our first meeting is with Lorna G. Jaramillo Nieves, Ph.D.—a geologist and lifelong Presbyterian. She is also the interim assistant dean of research in the Office for Graduate Studies and Research at the University of Puerto Rico, Rio Piedras.
Lorna has recently published a book about the 1918 Puerto Rico earthquake and subsequent tsunami, which caused major damage in the western part of the island. Around 120 lives were lost and more than $4,000,000 in damages were incurred in 1918 dollars. These repairs were financed largely through municipal bonds and a trip to Wall Street, a foray that isn’t unconnected from the Commonwealth’s $70 billion public debt today.
Hurricane Maria struck as Lorna finished the book. The lessons of the earthquake hadn’t been learned, and now Puerto Rico was devastated by another disaster it hadn’t been prepared for.
Puerto Rico is not a resilient society right now (and, to be clear, neither are most other places). The island is dependent upon imports of nearly everything...and is due for a major earthquake, is prone to tsunamis, and is periodically hit by hurricanes. Its electrical grid is based on coal and petroleum, with electricity traveling long distances on easily downed wires. Years of economic depression, corruption, and public indebtedness have left the infrastructure in a pretty sad state. Even if climate change weren’t a major issue—and Lorna says it is the most important issue of our day—Puerto Rico still needs to build resilience. As it is, the island is barely able to bounce back from crisis, let alone bounce forward.
We talk for a long time with Lorna. She asks us about the environmental issues our own congregations grapple with. I think about the Maumee River and the whole Lake Erie watershed, of which I am a resident, and the toxic algae blooms that show up most years now. I think about how this year an unusually rainy spring prevented farmers from planting one third of the fields they usually would in the most fertile region of Ohio. And I think about my own community’s experience of natural disaster with the floods of 2007 and 2008. When it comes to the environment and climate change, we are all in frontline communities. We are all in need of resilience, today.
Lorna also shares her experiences as a woman of faith in the physical sciences, and leaves us with a memorable charge: “I am a scientist and member of this church. As we are called to be humble with other people, we have to be humble in how we share [information about climate science] with others.”
After meeting with Lorna we meet with two familiar faces: José González-Colón and Michelle Muñiz-Vega. Both have, in an official capacity, helped manage the Presbyterian response to Hurricane Maria. There are 70,000 houses across the island with tarps on the roof and there is still a lot of work to do. Estimates are that it will take Puerto Rico 15 years to recover, and we are now two years in. Puerto Rican Presbyterians have been connected to the wider Presbyterian world in new and exciting ways. And in other ways Puerto Rican Presbyterians have learned new ways to show the love of God to their neighbors. In Country Club, the Presbyterian Church began using its sanctuary as a warehouse for food. As we saw in Bayamón, the church used its location near a hospital and mall to provide necessary electrical services to people. José wants a resilience center at Hato Rey Presbyterian Church, a place where solar power and pastoral/psychological care enable the church to help people in disasters. Is Puerto Rico currently resilient? No. But are churches, community centers, etc. building a more resilient island? Absolutely. Is the wider church an ally in this process of building resilience in Puerto Rico? So far, it’s complicated.
Then we head back to La Casona and relax before dinner. A few of us check out some cool spots on Calle Loiza nearby, including a great spot for local beer. And then we’re home for dinner, worship, and conversation before some well-needed rest.
Like Puerto Rico, we have to build our own resilience.
by Rev. Rebecca Seegers
This trip was planned as a continuation of last year’s Fossil Free Walk to General Assembly in St. Louis. It was dreamed during that walk, came into fruition over the months following. The idea as I understood it was to see Puerto Rico and the work that is being done post-Maria, particularly in the areas in which environmental sustainability is being lived out with an eye to support for fossil fuel divestment in the PC(USA). A sort of “walk” around the island as a promise, a prayer, and a presentiment of what might be possible elsewhere as well. We even talked about a hashtag to use as we tweeted and IG’d and Facebooked, using social media to tell our story through #PResbyteriansWalk4Change.
We were to arrive throughout the day Sunday, and Monday we had plans to go to Proyeto Enlace, an NGO that connects San Juan neighborhoods with the San Juan Bay Estuary. Then the world changed. On July 13th, over 800 pages of chat room conversations were shared by the Centro de Periodismo Investigativo in which Governor Ricardo Rosselló made misogynistic, homophobic, fat-shaming comments, and the roof blew off. Daily protest marches were occurring with a huge percentage of the population showing up. An enormous one was planned for Monday, July 22nd, our first full day. So after months of planning and reading and listening to blogs and watching videos about Puerto Rico’s history and the current situation, we decided to walk in solidarity with the Puerto Rican people.
I rose early on Monday morning, made a pot of strong coffee, and prepared for the day. Sunscreen: check. Sunglasses: check. Good walking shoes: check. Water bottle: check. Hat (borrowed from AmyBeth): check. Lunch: oh, no! Didn’t remember and didn’t have time to make it, so I threw a granola bar in my back pocket and off we went.
We gathered at Iglesia Presbiteriana en Hato Ray, and then walked toward the starting point, the Plaza de Americas, a mall which is both a testament to the capitalism the protests were against and the family who owns it. As we walked, a trickle of people became a river, so that by the time we were under the overpass by our entry ramp, we were surrounded. While we walked the cloverleaf up to the highway, our group joked that the only Ricky we wanted to see was Ricky Martin.
We began to march the route, framed by people in all their variety. A man being pushed by a younger woman in a wheelchair. A girl on stilts dressed in the Puerto Rican flag. A young woman banging a dented pot with a sticker proclaiming it just bought that morning. Another dressed all in black with her face made up like a skull and 4,645 painted on her midriff. A man decked out as Rosselló in effigy. Placards in Spanish both hilarious and poignant. The Puerto Rican flag in the red, white, and the royal blue of American colonialism; the red, white, and original pastel blue; and black and white of universal grief. Chants that we tried to understand and join: “Ricky! Renuncia!” (Ricky! Resign!) and “Somos Más y No Tenemos Miedo” (We are more and we are not afraid.”) Notwithstanding the undergirding pain, a festival spirit was in the air, with noise and music and chants filling it.
The sun beat down and we walked and we walked and we walked. A sense simultaneously joyful yet dignified walked with us. Eventually, we walked off a ramp, wound under and around, then back up and onward in the opposite direction. We were hot and tired and footsore, but we continued to walk. We stopped to eat our sandwiches or in my case, a melted granola bar. We watched people walk by us. An older couple under a huge umbrella emblazoned with the Puerto Rican flag. Members of the teachers’ union. Tons of young people dressed in black T-shirts adorned with “Somos Puerto Rico!” and “Resistencia!” and other relevant slogans. We bought cold water and walked some more. People lined the highway and the overpasses. The opposite side of the highway from which we had come was filled with a sea of people walking toward us; our side was a sea of people walking before us. Our faithful leader, Michelle, stopped us to point out a truck on the opposite side with “local celebrities” waving the Puerto Rican flag – and there in it at the front among them, waving one in the LGBTQIA colors was RICKY MARTIN!!! It was magnificent.
We walked and walked and walked the rest of the way back to the exit ramp, down it and to the church, the crowd dispersing their separate ways around us. We arrived at Iglesia Presbiteriana and sat in glorious air conditioning with Gatorade and iced tea to debrief while a drenching afternoon rain poured down.
Later that evening, we listened to a presentation on the history that brought Puerto Rico to its current state, particularly with the debt crisis and American policies that have exacerbated it. We learned about ridiculous laws like the Jones-Shafroth Act in 1917 that gave Puerto Ricans “statutory citizenship” just in time to draft them for WWI. Or the Jones Act of 1920, also known as the Merchant Marine Act, which dictates Puerto Ricans can only purchase products brought to the island on American ships. So if they want a product from a nearby island, it has to travel all the way to Miami, disembark onto an American ship in order to return to Puerto Rico. Or even worse, Bayer aspirin, which is produced in Puerto Rico, is shipped to Morristown, NJ, where it is packaged and then shipped back to be sold at a greater cost. So Ricky Rosselló and his chat room bad behavior weren’t so much the point of the protests, but the proverbial straw that breaks the camel’s back.
Afterward, I asked someone their opinion on independence v. statehood and the answer I received was not what I expected. I was told, “We’re not ready for either. We need to get our house in order before we make that decision. But once our house is in order, the thing that is important to me is not that we become a state or gain our independence or anything else. The important thing is that whatever we do, we Puerto Ricans get to choose.”
This is something that has hit me very deeply. That these beautiful vibrant joyous people who live on this incredible island should be treated as the human beings that they are. The Puerto Rican people deserve the right to self-determination. “Somos Más y No Tenemos Meido” indeed.
Addendum: Since this article was written, Ricardo Rosello has resigned as of August 2nd. Whatever is next for Puerto Rico, I pray that it leads to a better future that is designed and defined by those who live here.
Arrival Day: Sunday July 21, 2019
Travel days can often be stressful. For my part, I packed from 8-11pm Saturday night, slept until 2:45am, then got up and ambled to the car, excited and sleep-deprived. Neal, my husband, kindly drove me to the airport. My flights from Durham, then Orlando were uneventful. The San Juan airport and my old phone could not coordinate my attempts to communicate with family and friends (especially the rest of the morning arrival delegates) so I was glad I had printed the pictures to help me locate Rebecca and Emily Wilkes at baggage claim. By 1:30 we were met by Aida, and transported by Michelle in a van to a meal at the Metropol restaurant for lunch at 2pm. We were the first members of our delegation to arrive at the Casona de Monteflores, our home away from home.
The Casona has five bedrooms, two living rooms and kitchens, and a top floor area where the breeze is lovely. Bunkbeds allow for 16 to sleep here, making the space ideal for our delegation of 14. We are indebted to the Presbyterian Disaster Assistance (PDA) program for having restored this older house for use with mission groups who arrive… and to Michelle Muñiz of PDA for coordinating our delegation’s schedule.
A few delegates had arrived in Puerto Rico earlier, for an 8-day mission trip with their congregation, a few days of relaxing time with friends, or a family vacation during a sabbatical. For them the newness of Puerto Rico was shared with other people in other parts of the island. As we arrived, we compared this island’s uniqueness to previous experiences away from the contiguous 48 states of the US. For all of us there was a need to make new friends with each other.
Some questions recurred:
Where are you from?
How did you connect with this delegation?
Are you clergy?
Do you have children?
Have you been to Puerto Rico before?
Learning each other’s names and faces took all evening as more people arrived.
A church member brought us supper: beans, rice, grilled chicken, lettuce, and a mixture of cucumbers and avocado with dressing. We prayed over it, ate, and welcomed Jose Gonzalez-Colon afterward. A former Moderator of New York City Presbytery, and Moderator of the Presbytery of San Juan, he is now the Moderator of the Synod of San Juan. He briefed us on various issues facing Puerto Rico, and elaborated on the most recent protests. After the chats between people in power, including the Governor of Puerto Rico, were made public, many people demanded that the Governor resign, and the Oversight Board be abolished. Within a couple of days of the press sharing some details of the chats, 500,000 people came to San Juan to demand the resignation of the Governor. This is a large number, Jose said, given that among the several islands which comprise what we call Puerto Rico, there are only 3.5 million inhabitants.
We closed the day with a brief prayer service, and went to bed. The final delegate arrived, his luggage delayed behind him. Thus ended our arrival day: 14 delegated safely here. God is good, all the time. All the time, God is good!
Submitted by Emily Wilkins of Durham, NC, New Hope Presbytery, July 22, 2019.
By Tomi McCutchen
That is where I fell on the ACT World of Work map back in the dark ages of my high school career, an outlier on an official piece of paper. Given that each person’s map is linked to that person’s stated interests, I should not have been surprised. My interests always have varied widely, often surprising others in this rural, conservative area who have an “image” of who I should be because I teach college journalism and am now married to a minister.
Also, because I am the faculty adviser to my university’s student newspaper, I have spent the past 23 years being extremely private about my opinions on various hot-button issues. I felt the need to self-censor because I did not want to be perceived as exerting undue influence on my student staff.
We all know that perception is tougher to fight than reality. And I know who I am – a 59-year-old woman who loves the land and wants to make a difference in some small way.
So, on the issue of climate change, I can no longer remain silent. I am absolutely terrified of the havoc we are wreaking upon our planet, this beautiful Earth that God gave us for our home. And I am absolutely appalled that our treatment of our home has become just another political issue or salacious headline on any given day.
No more. Collectively, we must act now, but we must arm ourselves with knowledge and patience, and be willing to be vilified for our efforts, in order to try to save our world from self-destruction.
This, then, is why I am so looking forward to our time in Puerto Rico with Fossil Free PCUSA. I am deeply grateful for this time to learn – about permaculture, about restoration projects, about different environments, about an island that refused to bow to a major hurricane or clueless politicians – and thus to be the perpetual student that ACT correctly predicted lo those many years ago.
The July 14 lectionary included this verse from Colossians (1:10), “… so that you may live a life worthy of the Lord and please him in every way: bearing fruit in every good work, growing in the knowledge of God …”
When my husband and I return to Northwest Tennessee from Puerto Rico, my hope is that we can fulfill the directive of this verse by sharing what we’ve learned with others and possibly finding ways to effect change, either in others’ views of climate change or through projects that help our local environment.
My prayer is that the fruit we bear will reflect well what we learn, and that we both will continue to be perpetual students.
Our home is worth the effort.
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