Puerto Rico recovery effort shows 'a church that walks with the poor'

IMAGE: CNS photo/Bob Roller

By Wallice J. de la Vega

MARIAS, Puerto Rico (CNS) — By joining forces to create coalitions on behalf
of those who are suffering in the wake of Hurricane Maria, the Catholic Church
in Puerto Rico has been fulfilling Pope Francis’ expressed wish to see “a
church that walks with the poor.”

the parish level, that cooperation has been notable at Immaculate Heart of Mary
Catholic Church in Las Marias, a small town nestled in Puerto Rico’s western

Carlos Francis Mendez, pastor of Immaculate Heart, has teamed with the local
Pentecostal church, Plenitud lay youth group and Samaritan’s Purse to pool and
distribute material resources in a coordinated way to the poorest sectors of
Las Marias.

the church’s parish hall became a busy warehouse and operations center full of
volunteers providing relief to victims of Hurricane Irma in Haiti. Hurricane
Maria refocused their mission toward the local community.

we have done is create Proyecto de Vida (Life Project) by joining different
religious and civil organizations to gather all we have, and that way
magnifying what we can give to the poor,” Father Carlos told Catholic News

and federal agencies had been notably slow distributing aid to Las Marias. Some
aid was brought in during the first weeks after Hurricane Maria, but it had
been sitting undelivered to the needy.

off-road in Plato Indio sector Oct. 24, Father Carlos was busy leading a party
of volunteers to distribute food, water filters and plastic tarps, which are mainly
being used to cover torn roofs. At each stop, the group also prayed for the families
they were helping.

Indio is a maze of narrow one-lane roads recently cleared of landslides debris
and fallen power lines. It is an area dotted with unsafe houses and extremely
poor families.

have been doing this since day one,” said the young priest. “The idea
is to get to the least (because) here it has been disastrous and aid was slow.”

said that during the first weeks after Hurricane Maria, the church’s delivery
of aid was extremely difficult because it had to be done by foot because
practically all local roads were blocked by landslides.

Sierra, parish secretary, explained that each coalition member receives
donations individually and brings them to Proyecto.

sort them, put them in mixed bags and deliver them door to door out in the
countryside,” she said. “Last Saturday we went out and delivered all
we had, and when we came back there was a large load of clothing items already
waiting for us for the next distribution.”

last round of donations received by the coalition included $5,000 from the
Diocese of Arecibo for food items, hundreds of clothing items from the
Pentecostals, as well as 200 water filters and hundreds of solar-powered
lightbulbs from Samaritan’s Purse.

of the parish volunteers working with the church relief operation was Martha
Vega. Before the hurricane, the young mother had lost her husband, her son and
her daughter. Both men are incarcerated and the girl has been placed under
child protective services. Hurricane Maria took all Vega had left: her house in
a nearby wooded area and her personal property.

have lost everything. My house was torn apart. It took me four days to make it
to my house walking by way of trails because the road was impassible,”
said Vega. She was temporarily staying with a friend. “The only thing I
can do now is start over,” she told CNS. “I’m motivated because I’m here,
helping others, and because all help that I have requested, I have received it

Lamboy, 82, who has Alzheimer’s, was one of the last recipients of aid in Plato
Indio. Cheerful and happy to have company, she was grateful for the items

Father Carlos identified himself to her as a priest, she answered with a big
smile: “I don’t care who you are, as long and you bring me the gift of
God’s word.”

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