Laurel’s Puerto Rico Reflection

Every year, Lagom Landing takes an extended field-trip in the spring.  We have done Hurricane Sandy Relief in Long Island, helped build an Arts Center at Stony Point, constructed wheelchair ramps in Baldwin, MI, and have helped a sustainable tourism site build a treehouse for rock climbers in the Red River Gorge of KY.  But, setting a Lagom Landing record, 2019 brought us as far as Puerto Rico with the help of our generous supporters!

From May 1-8, Lagom Landing had the incredible opportunity to lend our hearts and hands to the rebuilding effort after Hurricanes Irma and Maria decimated the island in 2017. The trip was the third taken as a part of a partnership formed between the First Presbyterian Church of Elmira and Lares Presbyterian Church in Lares, PR.  Our team consisted of current, past, and potential Lagom Landing students, Lagom staff, and Joanne Tunison, an elder at First Presbyterian Church of Elmira. Laurel shares these reflections from their time in Puerto Rico:

Psalm 136 has a refrain, “Give thanks to the Lord, for his Steadfast Love endures forever”.  The refrain repeats 26 times throughout the Psalm, reminding us of God’s resilient love with us in creation, rescuing us from trouble, ever present in good times, and in bad times.

That “steadfast love”, the Hebrew word “hesed”, was also a refrain of our time in Puerto Rico, illustrated by Pastora Evelyn (pastor of the church in Lares), Johnny (the builder we worked with), Cenia (owner of the home we worked on), Cuchi (church member who cooked our lunches),  and Maria Luz and Dido (church couple who took in our student Jake when he was briefly hospitalized). Even in the midst of still recovering from a devastating hurricane nearly two years ago, we met people whose gratitude was made palpable in so many ways.

Pastora Evelyn told us at the beginning of the week, “We are so grateful for you. We can’t show you that in too many ways, but we can feed you!” And feed us they did!  Huge lunches cooked by Cuchi’s caring hands—meat falling off bones and melting in our mouths, rice full of flavor, and oh—the desserts!—flan made with pumpkins from Cuchi’s own garden and a pineapple upside-down cake to celebrate my birthday alongside Dido’s. There was so much food, we took it home and didn’t have to cook dinners all week!

Johnny, the contractor directing our work, lost his mother due to health complications brought on by the lack of electricity after the storm. Johnny faithfully brought a full cooler of ice and cold water and pop to keep us cool in the hot sun. He liked to sweeten our work days with treats and rest times enjoying them. Most memorable was the “donut truck” making its way through the streets with mouth watering creations, the meat pie trip for breakfast, all sorts of plantain and banana creations, and finally the gift of Pina Coladas (virgin, of course, with whipped cream on top!) on our last day. With Johnny we shared good laughter, English/Spanish lessons, body-surfing lessons, fun burying Jake in the sand on the beach, and tender moments of appreciation, our spirits slathered with God’s steadfast love.

Gracious hospitality peppered our days in other ways as well.  When Jake was dealing with the pain of 40 sea urchin quills in his big toe, homeowner Cenia carefully cleaned the area, wrapped it in gauze, and gave him a pair of white (versus his black) socks, saying they would keep the area more clean. Pastora Evelyn saw the potential of infection and made phone calls to get Jake an antibiotic. And later, when Jake had signs of a strange infection, the “salvation army” of women of the church all collaborated to get him to the Urgent Care clinic and get him properly diagnosed. This scene of several women doting on a 21 year old man gave me a view into this community that has dealt with so much hardship, homelessness, hunger, and how they’ve been prepared to be gracious stewards of human kinship.

I will carry the warmth of this island with me through many memories. I was bathed in this warmth while being prayed for in worship as “Happy Birthday” was sung to Dido and I. I felt it also through bearing witness to terribly difficult stories of loss and destruction alongside stories of resilience, rebuilding, healing, and the slow growth of hope. Through shared laughter, work, and meals as well as time spent at the beach.

Strange, I think now, how little I knew about this island before Joanne Tunison (forever in my mind as “Juana”) visited Lagom Landing with her wooden cutout of its geography and bag depicting its flag… For instance, did you know this flag was once banned by the U.S. government, one of many impactful attempts to disenfranchise the peoples of the island. Despite being 46 years old, having graduated a history major, and a being a longtime Presbyterian Church (USA) member and minister, I knew almost nothing about this Commonwealth territory of the U.S., where all residents are U.S. citizens.  How shameful it is that many of my fellow citizens and brothers and sisters in faith continue to know so little about our brothers and sisters in Puerto Rico who have long been denied their deserved voice and autonomy.

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s autobiography My Beloved World  accompanied me on this trip, and her hard work and humility gave me a lens to view this island’s courage and faith as its inhabitants continue to recover and prepare for future storms. Storms will come, and storms will go, and God’s steadfast love will continue to be with these people, causing them to, somehow, unbelievably, give thanks in all things. May we on the mainland learn more, embrace the mainland-based Puerto Rican community around us, and advocate and work to support the strong people who continue to re-build their lives and society on the beautiful Isla de Puerto Rico.

Finally, THANK YOU to all who supported this incredible learning experience for our students by sending donations, buying Maple Syrup (available here, we ship now!), and coming to our Backyard Maple Pancake Breakfast in March! We couldn’t do our work with you!

1 thought on “Laurel’s Puerto Rico Reflection

  1. Wow! So glad you went! My husband James (whom you met) brings Waynesburg University students to Salinas PR (southern part).. wonderful experience for y’all!

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