By ANDREW NELSON, Staff writer | Published October 6, 2017 | En Español
ATLANTA—Several residents of Puerto Rico stranded in Atlanta found haven with the Catholic community after Hurricane Maria devastated their island home.
Many groups and individuals helped the seven travelers during their extra-week stay in Atlanta. They returned to the wrecked island on Thursday, Sept. 28.
The three priests and four lay people were in Atlanta attending the conference of the International Catholic Stewardship Council when Hurricane Maria hit the island on Wednesday, Sept. 20, near the end of conference. Deacon Bill Hampton, of St. Matthew Church, Tyrone, spoke at the conference about Catholic Relief Services, the overseas relief agency of the U.S. Catholic Church. After his talk, the group approached him and asked for help.
“We’re all going to need help at one time or the other. People just opened their hearts,” said Deacon Hampton, who is a Catholic Relief Services Global Fellow.
The group rested for a few days at Ignatius House Jesuit Retreat Center in Atlanta. They joined Father Jaime Rivera, a native of Puerto Rico, for Mass at St. Thomas Aquinas Church, Alpharetta. Parishioners there also served the group, including doing their laundry.
“Parishioners were really asking, ‘how can we help?’ Of course, that’s the first thing they ask. People were really welcoming” to the visitors, he said.
The stranded travelers moved closer to Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport to be ready when flights resumed to the island. That’s when people at St. Matthew Church and others helped, said Deacon Hampton.
Three families hosted the group in their homes for food, fellowship and prayer, and others were ready and willing, Deacon Hampton said. One family loaned the group a golf cart to travel around Peachtree City. Catholic Charities Atlanta paid for three nights of a hotel stay. Leaders of the International Stewardship Council made a donation to help them too.
The stranded passengers’ disappointments grew as they saw the devastation in their home and scheduled flights were cancelled. Stories of long lines and other troubles for their families, who were unharmed, made the delay more frustrating.
At the Georgia Shrimp Company in Peachtree City, restaurant owners Dee and Anthony Murphy treated the group to a special meal free of charge to relieve stress. Said Deacon Hampton, “For a short while we were just a group of friends enjoying good wine, good food and good conversation.”
Before they left for home, the deacon loaded them up with 60 solar lights, scores of personal hygiene bags, and supplies requested by relief agencies. The group left on Sept. 28, after a notification to be at the airport by 5 a.m. Deacon Hampton learned about 2:30 p.m. that the group had made it home.
“They allowed so many of us to be the hands and feet of Christ,” he said.
Atlanta priests concerned for their families
Father Rivera is one of five Puerto Rican priests serving in the Archdiocese of Atlanta. He said the group of priests is sharing news they hear about the recovery on the island.
“It’s horrible. There’s not a day I don’t cry,” said Father Rivera. He has spoken with his family through sporadic telephone connection. His family is safe, but the destroyed infrastructure makes life very hard, he said.
At St. Mary Church, Rome, Father Rafael Carballo, pastor, who still has family on the island, said the devastation touched every part of the country.
He said, “Every family is suffering the consequences of a terrible, horrible storm. No water, no electricity, no communications, insecurity and uncertainty.” Father Carballo said he’s sent 20 boxes and money for relief. He said, “The dignity of all human beings needs to be uplifted.”
Other priests from Puerto Rico serving in the archdiocese include Father José Luis Hernández Ayala, pastor of St. Mark Church, Clarkesville; Father Luis Álvarez, parochial vicar at St. Theresa Church, Douglasville; and Legionary of Christ Father Juan José Hernández, chaplain for Regnum Christi.
Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory sent a message to the group of Atlanta priests, expressing concern for them and their families.
“I would like to send you my sentiments of compassion and love, and assure you that I am praying that our Lord will give you and your families the strength to go through this difficult time and recover after this devastating nature event,” he wrote.