Seeking answers after PR storm

BY SUSAN KIM | SAN JUAN, P.R. | November 10, 1998

SAN JUAN, P.R. (Nov. 10, 1998) -- The Rev. Rafael Moreno has two

Pentecostal churches. One is a 500-year-old building in the heart of Old

San Juan, a well- known tourist district that contains some of the most

posh hotels in Puerto Rico. The other is a shell of a concrete building in

La Perla, the impoverished and drug-ridden neighborhood wedged into a

hillside that curves underneath Old San Juan.

Moreno, six-foot-two, usually dresses in a conservative gray suit with a

crisp white shirt. Nearly every day, he drives or walks down the hillside

to the concrete church, which has a tin roof and only two walls. The

40-year-old, an 11-year veteran of Pentecostal ministry in Puerto Rico,

accepted this assignment because nobody else wanted to pastor here. He has

been here eight months.

He has big plans for this church -- but Hurricane Georges has delayed

them. "We already have a ministry for the children here on Saturdays. One

lady makes up her face like a clown and passes out balloons and candy. Then

I preach to them, and to their parents if they'll come. We call this

'invasion ministry.'"

Above in Old San Juan, tourists gaze down streets made of blue tile

salvaged from old Spanish ships. In La Perla, the color blue comes in the

form of tarps issued from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to

homes with roofs blown off by the hurricane.

La Perla needs more than tarps to recover from the hurricane, and from

the cycle of poverty that was in place long before Georges' winds swept


But ministering to this community is tough. Moreno drives through the

twisting mile of one-lane road where about 300 families live in huts and

concrete homes stacked close together up the hillside. "Nobody comes down

here unless they walk in with somebody they know," he said. "This is

basically a forbidden area. See those cars?" He points to a Lexus and a

Volvo. "Nobody's gonna have one of those down here unless they're dealing


"And horses?!" He points to a brand new horse trailer. "That's drug money."

Moreno remembers preaching to his congregation at a special service the

night before the hurricane. "I told them the story from the Bible about how

Jesus was once on a ship, and he was sleeping. The disciples woke him up

and asked him what to do about the high winds, and Jesus said, 'Hey, you

wake me up for that?! Where's your faith? You have the power!' "

That night Moreno told his congregation to direct the power of their

prayers toward the sea. "That was when Georges came down from a Class V to

a Class III hurricane. We were pretty happy with the results," he laughs.

Moreno and his wife stayed in their home above the church in Old San

Juan on hurricane night. It took no damage. "But it felt like a haunted

house. The wind sounded like a thousand voices," he said.

Now Moreno, with guidance from the Church World Service, is helping to

lead efforts in Puerto Rico to form an interfaith coalition that will

respond to the long-term needs of hurricane survivors.

At the Iglesia De Dois Pentecostal in San Juan, the headquarters of the

Pentecostal Church, volunteers unpack boxes of beans, rice, clothing,

generators, lanterns, and sheets. Another shipment of boxes is waiting at

the airport.

The supplies will be taken to 14 distribution centers across the island,

which will be staffed by volunteers from all faiths. Iglesia De Dois

Pentecostal is also collecting donations through its 24-hour radio station,

which broadcasts inspirational music, religious education, and news.

Moreno said he has been trying to emphasize a sense of unity among

church groups that may not normally work together.

"Someone from Arkansas -- I don't even know what church -- sent me a

$100 check and apologized for the small amount. I wrote him back and told

him the amount was less important than his friendship, because that's what

will last through the long-term."

The Pentecostal Church and others in the budding interfaith alliance

still need generators, chain saws, extension cords, axes, machetes, pick-up

trucks, and open house tents for portable distribution points.

Pentecostal churches are also sending aid to the devastated Dominican

Republic as well.

The Rev. Elias Perez Garcia, general president of the Pentecostal

Church, said the church's priority is to help people who have suffered.

"We're not a rich church, but with volunteer help, you see we can do a lot.

This is a big circular movement. Even though the government has responded

on the island, the first people that responded were the church people," he

said. "We will continue to pray for all of you and hope that you will pray

for us."

Moreno said that donations have a way of multiplying. "I remember during

Hurricane Hortense we had 21 families sleeping in the church. Whenever it

came time to eat, there was food. I have no idea where it came from, but

there was food."

Volunteer help is at a premium, he said, because so many people are busy

getting their own families back to normal, or they can't take time off from

their jobs. "There was so much unemployment during the hurricane when the

system -- electricity, water -- simply shut down. Right now everyone is

struggling in terms of time and finances," he said.

He also said it's a crucial time for churches to work together. "There's

more unity after a disaster. People get more concerned about their

spiritual life. The church has been full, full, full. God said He wants us

to be of good courage. I apply that to my ministry. I say, Lord, I'm going

to do what your word says -- but you're gonna back me up."

Posted: Nov. 10, 1998

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