By Cheryl Magness
On Jan. 7, a 6.4 magnitude earthquake hit Puerto Rico in the early morning hours. It is the largest earthquake to strike the island in over a century and came amid the continuing effort to recover from 2017’s Hurricane Maria.
The Jan. 7 earthquake followed more than 500 earthquakes of at least magnitude 2 in Puerto Rico since Dec. 28. On Jan. 10, a team from The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod (LCMS) arrived and spent the next four days assessing both the damages and the needs of those affected. Team members included the Rev. Dr. Ross Johnson, director of LCMS World Relief and Human Care Disaster Response; the Rev. Ted Krey, LCMS regional director for Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC); the Rev. Charles St-Onge, LAC regional facilitator; the Rev. James and Angie Sharp, LCMS missionaries to Uruguay; and Johanna Heidorn, LAC photographer.
Upon arriving, the assessment team met with the Rev. James and Deaconess Christel Neuendorf, LCMS missionaries in Ponce, as well as with the wider Puerto Rican disaster-response team: Alliance Missionary Rev. Gustavo Maita, Puerto Rican lay evangelist William Torres and LCMS missionaries James Krey and the Rev. Anthony DiLiberto. All serve on the team that is currently halfway through a four-year disaster plan for Hurricanes Irma and Maria. While the assessment team ministered to the missionaries and assisted with making a plan for the coming weeks, Angie Sharp cared for missionary families while their spouses were putting in long hours on the mission field.
The series of quakes that began on Dec. 28 has caused superficial damage to many buildings and significant damage to a small number of older and taller buildings. Churches and high-rise apartments especially have been impacted. A major power plant has been damaged, resulting in rolling brownouts.
Fountain of Life, the LCMS mission in Ponce, sustained what seems to be superficial damage but, at this writing, is awaiting further inspection. There is no way to know whether additional temblors will come. The U.S. Geographical Survey predicts that the earthquakes will diminish over the next 30 days, with a small possibility (19 percent) of similar or worse quakes (usgs.gov/center-news/earthquake-scenarios-puerto-rico).
In the immediate aftermath of the Jan. 7 quake, the Neuendorfs — who have been serving in Ponce for approximately a year — connected, first, with their congregation and then with the wider community, checking on residents in an elder care center, assisting municipal leaders with immediate relief efforts, and counseling and praying with those in need.
In a Jan. 10 interview with Worldwide KFUO, Rev. Neuendorf said, “I’ve been able to pray with the mayor and the municipal staff … [and care] for those people in charge of coordinating things. … It’s overwhelming … [but] it’s been very clear to us that God knew many, many months in advance about this earthquake and has been preparing us. …
“This last summer we put on a VBS in one of the government housing projects, and we decided to use, as a curriculum, [LCMS] Disaster Response’s ‘Camp Courage.’ Our whole congregation … [was] fully trained, and [we] have all the materials for this VBS designed for children who have been through a disaster. … Starting tomorrow … we hope to put on this VBS [for earthquake victims], and it just so happens we have done it before.”
St-Onge said the most severe effects of the quakes at this time are not physical, but psychological and spiritual.
“People are afraid to sleep or even attend events indoors,” he reported. “Each small temblor brings new anxiety. Many organizations and the National Guard are present, working in new tent cities, providing water, food and other physical comforts. The LCMS response, therefore, is focusing on addressing the deep anxiety within the population.”
St-Onge continued: “Our missionaries were on-site at the first refugee center within hours of the 6.4 earthquake. Since then, pastors have been providing spiritual care and worship, and other team members … have been working with small children.”
In the short term, the LCMS response will include setting up an outdoor relief center at Fountain of Life. Pastors and support personnel will be brought in to Puerto Rico on a rotating basis to assist the on-site team in this work.
The first such team, consisting of the Rev. Sergio Fritzler (Concordia the Reformer Seminary in the Dominican Republic), Blake Warren (LAC regional business manager), Erin Mackenzie (LAC volunteer coordinator) and Jamielynn Tinkey (LAC life coordinator) arrived Jan. 14. A call is also going out to Spanish-speaking pastors, Christian counselors, social workers and psychiatrists who would like to spend a week or two in Ponce working with affected individuals.
On Sunday, Jan. 12, and again on Sunday, Jan. 19, the congregation of Fountain of Life met for worship in the Neuendorfs’ carport because the church had not yet been deemed safe. Of the Jan. 12 service, Director of LCMS Disaster Response Rev. Dr. Ross Johnson said, “Church members brought friends to the service. Rev. Neuendorf led hymns and liturgy on guitar and preached Christ’s comfort for all. Some of those present refused to stand under the carport covering for fear that it might fall on them.”
St-Onge echoed Neuendorf in emphasizing the blessing of having an active disaster-response presence already in place before the earthquakes even began.
“The Lord has put us in the right place, at the right time, with the right tools, to help with the very real spiritual need of a people living in anxiety and fear,” St-Onge said. “As Rev. James Neuendorf preached … Jesus’ love and forgiveness are not found in hurricanes or earthquakes, but in God’s Word and in the Sacraments.”
The LCMS has provided a $25,000 grant from its available general disaster relief funds. Those interested in helping to continue the Synod’s humanitarian responses are encouraged to prayerfully consider a contribution designated for LCMS World Relief and Human Care.
To donate online or find out more, visit lcms.org/how-we-serve/mercy. If you have questions or would like to discuss how you would prefer to help, contact LCMS Mission Advancement at email@example.com or 888-930-4438.
To volunteer to help, contact Erin Mackenzie (firstname.lastname@example.org) or Erin Alter (email@example.com), director of the LCMS Short-Term Mission Program.
For more updates about the situation in Puerto Rico from LCMS missionary Erin Mackenzie, click here.
Posted Jan. 24, 2020