By ANDREW NELSON, Staff Writer | Published August 23, 2018 | En Español
ATLANTA—A new ministry aims to knit closer ties between Catholics in Atlanta and those in Puerto Rico as the first anniversary of Hurricane Maria approaches.
The island continues rebuilding after the Category 4 hurricane with 150 mph winds made landfall on Sept. 20, 2017. It took nearly 11 months for electricity to be restored to its 3.5 million people following the deadly storm, which spiraled into a housing crisis and health disaster. Studies are underway to uncover how many people were killed due to the hurricane, but estimates are more than 1,400 lives were lost during the storm and its chaotic aftermath.
Working with local priests and human service organizations, the Rebuilding Hope ministry seeks to develop a sustainable network between Atlanta parishes and people in the rural areas of the storm-damaged island.
Randy J. Ortiz, a parishioner at St. Brigid Church, Johns Creek, jumped in to be a part of a lifeline of people in metro Atlanta gathering desperately needed items for storm survivors. Ortiz now wants to ensure rural, poor communities are not forgotten. Puerto Rican parishes are hubs for communities, more than simply a place for Sunday worship, he said. So for him, a way to uplift people is saving churches and parish halls, in addition to houses.
“You can see it, you can hear it. You continually hear them say, we are forgotten here,” he said.
It’s a lesson he learned during a recent trip to the island.
Rebuilding Hope, a nonprofit, was recently established under the umbrella of the Archdiocese of Atlanta. Its mission is to connect Catholic ministries in Atlanta with places in need and to serve communities in Puerto Rico.
Caritas Puerto Rico has been serving people since the storm hit—and the work is not done.
The island and its people face an “uncertainty of a better future, so we have a big challenge ahead of us,” said Father Enrique Camacho, the leader of the agency, in an email.
Caritas Puerto Rico is comparable in mission to Catholic Charities Atlanta.
Eleven months after the storm, the situation remains “sadly still complicated,” said Father Camacho. “Thousands of families still are living under tarps because they have not received enough aid from FEMA to repair their homes,” he shared.
The church agency has tried to serve as “a ray of light” to needy families, providing 200 generators to families living without electricity since the storm hit, supplying building materials to help people return to their homes and furnishing gift cards so people can buy furniture, said the priest.
To help Caritas Puerto Rico with the restoration efforts, parishioners at St. Joseph Church, Marietta, are raising funds through a special event to be the first to send volunteers to the island with Rebuilding Hope.
“We are bringing the flavor of Puerto Rico to Marietta. We want them to have the experience of the island,” said Lissette Perry, who is one of the organizers of an upcoming benefit dinner event. Perry is also the vice president of Majestic Plumbing and Electric.
The benefit is a special effort for Perry. She was born in New York City, but the family traveled to her parents’ native Puerto Rico for her baptism. Perry said doctors at her birth didn’t expect her to live long, so the family made the special trip.
When Hurricane Maria hit last year, she couldn’t communicate with her father who had returned there. It was weeks before they could talk, she said.
“You felt helpless and hopeless. You don’t know if they survived,” Perry said about loved ones on the island.
The Rebuilding Hope ministry answered a question she had long considered.
“I’ve been waiting my whole life to know what to do for the island,” she said, crediting her belief that the Holy Spirit has been leading her work.
St. Joseph’s evening event for Puerto Rico is being catered by Chef Raul Thomas, the former owner of Raul’s Latin American Café and presently the owner of Marietta’s New Theater in the Square. Live music performed by Latin artists, in addition to DJs, will add to the flair. Tickets for the event have sold out, but the group also appreciates any donations to the cause.
The goal is to raise at least $6,000 for materials to repair a chapel roof, refurbish a convent and retreat center, Perry said. Parish members are scheduled to fly to the island in October as part of the first mission.
Ortiz is a native of New Jersey, with family in Puerto Rico. His parents celebrated the island culture but wanted their children to be rooted in the United States. With his grandparents living in the house, he grew up hearing Spanish but never learned it fluently himself. Ortiz, 52, works as an architect and is in formation to be ordained a deacon in 2019.
Ortiz and other members of the Rebuilding Hope board of directors traveled to Puerto Rico to experience what the nonprofit could organize for parish groups. His June trip to the island was an unexpected heartfelt jolt. As he greeted priests attending a conference, he recalled how one priest extended a special greeting.
“He said, ‘welcome home.’ I get emotional to this day. I feel connected,” Ortiz explained.
He was moved by the devastation after the storm hit the island. Ortiz joined other Atlanta Catholics, including several Puerto Rican priests in Atlanta, to rush supplies to those in need. They sent a shipping container of water, food, diapers and other necessities, he said.
Reflecting after the initial response, Ortiz considered how to develop a long-term relationship.
The future deacon’s pondering on how to forge this relationship became the catalyst for Rebuilding Hope. The organization’s purpose is to lean on priests and religious communities with the know-how to identify needs and then work with the community.
“To make this happen, you really need a great base that understands the needs. We are doing this in a way that works side by side to rebuild,” Ortiz said.
Rebuilding Hope will facilitate trips, linking parish ministries here with the poor and the Catholic community in Puerto Rico. Relying on local input, it will match rebuilding projects and costs with volunteers. Parishes and ministry groups will raise money with a checklist telling donors what their dollars will do.
Working with Caritas Puerto Rico, Father Camacho said Rebuilding Hope can fill a gap for families who haven’t recovered.
The priest indicated there remains much to do, especially in the area of rebuilding since a large number of families still have no roofs.
“So we are working really hard to help these families,” he said.
To learn more or to donate to Rebuilding Hope for the people of Puerto Rico, visit www.rebuildinghopemissions.org.