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.
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