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VI priest shares news via Internet

BY GEORGE PIPER | ST. THOMAS, U.S. Virgin Islands | September 27, 1998

ST. THOMAS, U.S. Virgin Islands (September 27, 1998) -- As Hurricane

Georges battered St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands last week, Father

José Antonio Oquendo-Pabón provided ministry and comfort to an electronic

congregation.

The jovial priest, stationed at Holy Family Roman Catholic Church

estimates he had hundreds of people from England to California tuning in to

his reports via the Internet. His fingers rattled across the keyboard with

references to Scripture (such as Job 38) and messages concerning family

members braving the Caribbean hurricane.

Oquendo-Pabón faithfully stayed online until last Monday when a

transformer exploded and damaged his computer. He has since borrowed a

friend's computer to at least check his e-mail. Ironically, he was in the

process of shutting down his computer in the height of the storm when the

transformer blew.

In one of his last messages on the Caribbean Hurricane Page, before losing his computer, he

typed: "At any time you may lose me so here's to you all. I toast, with my

coffee cup in hand, all those who have been praying for me and us islanders

as I keep thinking 'I wanna go home, I don't want to go to OZ.'"

He learned that his computer was damaged when the electricity came back

on. "When I turned it on, it told me there were all sorts of files that

were messed up," he said. "It just fizzled on me.

"It was worth losing the computer to help people understand what is

going on," he added. "It helped calm people down."

A native of Vega Baja, Puerto Rico, the 46-year-old Oquendo-Pabón

remembers being in Rome during Hurricane Hugo in 1989 and being afraid for

family and parishioners back home. "There was no news whatsoever (from the

Caribbean), so I know how people must have felt when we were going through

this."

An Internet junkie -- "I invented the drug," he jokes -- Oquendo-Pabón

began using the technology as a tool to trace his family's genealogy. But

his time on the computer has connected him with his extended family of

mankind. Oquendo-Pabón finds himself comforting people via email and

bulletin boards or finding prayer requests and theological questions posted

in his electronic mailbox.

"I'm not talking just of Catholics," he said of his Internet pals. "I've

made friendships with several people."

Raised in the Brooklyn, N.Y., ghetto section of Fort Greene,

Oquendo-Pabón saw enough of drugs and poverty and injustice that led him to

believe he was needed in God's ministry. He also found inspiration in the

nuns and priests of the diocese that stuck it out through the tough

experiences.

After seven years in the seminary near Brooklyn, he was ordained as a

priest on April 12, 1980. Until this May, most of his priesthood has been

spent in Puerto Rico, with the exception of a nine-month stint during

Mariel Airlift from Cuba in the early 1980s and a brief assignment while

studying in Rome.

In addition to physical rebuilding from a hurricane, Oquendo-Pabón said

the emotional psyche needs healing as well. Islanders still talk about

Hurricane Marilyn that devastated the area in 1995, he said, and relief

workers, clergy and others will need to listen when residents talk about

their experiences.

"People need to heal and one of the ways to heal is to allow them to

talk about their experiences without cutting them off or minimizing their

experience," he said. "People need to say, 'Listen, this is what I went

through,' and then when they say what they have to say, we can deal with

the healing."

And although he and other Caribbean residents have been through

hurricanes before, the experience never gets any easier. "You know what's

coming, so it's a little frightening," he said.

While Oquendo-Pabón's priestly responsibilities lie in St. Thomas, his

thoughts are back in Puerto Rico. As of Saturday afternoon, he still was

waiting to hear from relatives there. And he heard reports of severe damage

near his former church, St. Anthony of Padua, in Ceiba, located in

northeast Puerto Rico.

Hurricanes and tropical storms are annual events in Puerto Rico and

throughout the Caribbean. The storm's aftermath almost always bring a flood

of relief workers to repair and replace material things. But in his

ministry of healing and comfort, Oquendo-Pabón reminds people of passages

in Job, where God tells the prophet who is in charge.

"No matter what's happening, He's in control," he said. "I believe that

very firmly."


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Mental health often overlooked

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