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.
you've found the blog for www.fossilfreepcusa.org