“This is going to be a test,” says Nick Russo, the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s federal coordinating officer in Puerto Rico. “The people of Puerto Rico have been through a lot, and we have learned the lessons of the past.”
Russo made his statement as Hurricane Dorian was bearing down on the island. Then the storm unexpectedly veered to the north, sparing Puerto Rico the worst of its wrath. While some twenty-three thousand people were without power yesterday afternoon and schools were closed, everyone on the island knows it could have been much worse.
Puerto Rico is still recovering from Hurricane Maria, which struck in September 2017 and is considered the worst natural disaster ever to strike the island.
That hurricane killed more than three thousand people, destroyed homes, wiped out electrical power, and compromised water delivery systems. Some isolated communities did not receive help for days.
Some thirty thousand homes still have tarps rather than roofs; more than a thousand roads remain blocked by landslides caused by the storm. A Puerto Rican pastor describes the horrific devastation and despair so many on his island still face.
As I followed Hurricane Dorian’s path in the news, I found myself wondering about Puerto Rico’s history and relationship to the US. And I felt a burden for these people I’d like to explore with you today.
Why Puerto Rico matters to the US
What happens in Puerto Rico is of direct concern to the United States because the former is a territory of the latter. Puerto Rico is more than a thousand miles southeast of Miami, but it became an “unincorporated territory” of America in 1898 after the US defeated Spain in the Spanish-American War.
Puerto Ricans by birth have American citizenship and can travel freely between the island and the US mainland. But Puerto Rico is not a state, meaning that it has no voting power in Congress. Its citizens cannot vote for the US president, though they can vote in party primaries.
Last June, Puerto Ricans voted overwhelmingly to become America’s fifty-first state. However, while 97 percent of votes cast were in favor of statehood, only 23 percent of registered voters cast ballots. Opposition parties boycotted the special election, which they considered to be rigged.
From John the Baptist to “rich port”
Christopher Columbus found the island on his second voyage to the new world, landing on November 19, 1493. It was inhabited at the time by about fifty thousand Taino Indians.
He named the island San Juan Bautista after John the Baptist. His first settlement on the island was named Puerto Rico, meaning “rich port,” because of its plentiful natural resources and gold nuggets found in a nearby river. Over time, the entire island became known as Puerto Rico.
Unfortunately, “rich port” no longer describes the island. A few months ago, Puerto Rico declared a form of bankruptcy in the face of $74 billion in debt and $49 billion in pension obligations it cannot pay. It closed more than 150 public schools in response to a mass exodus to the mainland. It has half the per capita income of Mississippi, America’s poorest state.
Why Puerto Rico should matter to Christians
When Dorian unexpectedly veered to the north yesterday, sparing Puerto Rico most of the devastation that had been predicted, news reports briefly mentioned the island before focusing on the storm’s predicted landfall in the eastern US as a probable Category 3 hurricane.
Unless Dorian is unusually destructive when it strikes the mainland, most who aren’t directly affected by the storm will likewise shift their attention in a few days to stories they find more personally relevant.
That’s understandable for a consumeristic secular culture that focuses on what we want more than what others need. For followers of Jesus, however, manifesting his heart for the hurting is central to our faith and witness.
We are to love everyone our Father loves. The One who “heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds” calls us to do the same (Psalm 147:3).
“Prayer changes me and I change things.”
Here’s one way to care about Puerto Ricans and anyone else who is suffering today: pray for them. Not just for their sake, but for ours.
Oswald Chambers: “Our ordinary views of prayer are not found in the New Testament. We look upon prayer as a means of getting things for ourselves; the Bible idea of prayer is that we may get to know God Himself.” When we pray for suffering people, the Spirit joins our heart to the grieving heart of God and we weep as he weeps (John 11:35).
Then, as Chambers notes, “Prayer changes me and I change things.”
For biblical passages to claim and pray, I invite you to read my wife’s latest blog, “One Day, Two Stories, No Words.” Responding to two tragedies that struck our community and hearts, Janet writes to those in grief and those who care for those in grief. Her reflections on the Psalms will encourage your spirit and guide your intercession.
Will you ask your Father for his heart for three million Puerto Ricans and for your neighbor today?
P.S. As evidenced by the popularity of our book series Biblical Insight to Tough Questions, the Denison Forum audience has many questions about living biblically in a culture that is largely opposed to that stance.
So far, we’ve released three volumes. We plan to release more—and that’s where you come in.
What’s your question?
Starting today, we will be taking your questions via email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
While not every question will be addressed, the questions we choose will be answered in resources on our website and in future volumes of Biblical Insight to Tough Questions.
Praying through, researching, and writing these biblical insights is one of my favorite tasks. I look forward to reading your questions and diving deeply into the well of biblical truth that can help us all make sense of living out our faith in the twenty-first century.
Send your question to email@example.com today.