In the summer of 2017, the most pressing problem for the commonwealth of Puerto Rico was its mounting debt with no means of repayment. But this serious issue became a drop in the bucket when Hurricane Maria slammed into the island on September 20, 2017. The most destructive hurricane in the island’s history, Maria decimated Puerto Rico’s already-weak infrastructure and left the island without electricity. Many residents went weeks without running water.

Maria caused more than $94 billion in property losses: there were hundreds of deaths; the electrical power grid was virtually destroyed; thousands of homes were ruined; and telephone lines and cell networks were wiped out.

What’s more, it’s estimated that the island’s poverty rate soared to 52.7 percent after the storm. And that the unemployment rate rose to nearly 12 percent.

When an entire island is in crisis, the question is not whether the local church should help, but how. Bruce Clark, pastor of Trinity Church (PCA) in Dorado, Puerto Rico, immediately went to work offering his fellow citizens practical relief.

As the months went by, the constant demands of disaster relief became more than the Clark family could sustain, but he leaves behind a ministry of immediate relief and a plan for long-term hope.

“I have a minivan and a Costco card”

After the storm, Clark surveyed the devastation around him and knew his community would need tremendous help. The eye of the hurricane passed just five miles from Clark’s home.

Clark has no formal disaster response training, but he is energetic and resourceful. He began gathering volunteers and using the resources at his disposal to do as much good as possible.

“I have a Costco card and a minivan, and I just started doing what I could,” he said.

Before long, Clark built a coalition of drivers to distribute supplies with the assistance of other churches, municipal governments, and civic organizations. This distribution chain developed a reputation for serving communities without asking anything in return, and it earned credibility with other organizations that wanted a reliable ground game for delivering relief. Humanitarian organizations, businesses, schools, and international companies all turned to Clark to deliver donated goods. As of December 2017, Clark and his team had distributed 45 tons of food throughout the island and brought in more than $200,000 in donations.

“We have been deliberate about serving and giving away supplies in ways that are non-opportunistic. We don’t build our little kingdom, but we build God’s kingdom,” he said.

The Clarks were not immune from the storm’s effects, including three weeks with no running water and even longer without electricity.

A Vision for Restoration

Beyond supplies and immediate relief, Clark wanted to help restore hope and quality of life for his fellow islanders. Currently, Puerto Rico’s economy clings to the brink of disaster as unemployment inches upward. The Economist projects that Puerto Rico’s economy will be the slowest in the world in 2018.

But hurricane relief offers opportunities for those with the right skills. Clark has poured energy into getting unskilled workers connected with those who can teach them skills like generator repair, fumigation, and equipment installation. He and other volunteers combed neighborhoods and talked with residents about their needs. Clark then asked residents about their skills and connected people who could help each other.

In the vibrant Puerto Rican culture, music plays a key role in creating identity, so Clark started Puerto Rico Heartbeat, a series of free concerts featuring local artists and community activities. At their first event, volunteers passed out 2,000 hot meals as children played in inflatable bounce houses and local bands performed for hours. Clark said the plaza was filled with people dancing.

“These are the songs that will help [Puerto Ricans] grieve and hope and remind them that they are part of something bigger,” Clark said.

A Church Plant, Planting Seeds

Trinity Church is a fledgling church plant and one of just two PCA churches in Puerto Rico. Briarwood PCA in Birmingham sent Clark to organize Trinity Church as a daughter church of Iglesia La Travesia in San Juan. He had been in Puerto Rico just 13 months when Maria arrived.

“We’re here to serve and give and don’t need to make sense of it all,” said Clark. “We’re very weary but very grateful.”

Yet Trinity’s relief work has helped the church gain trust in the community and opened doors to proclaim the Gospel. Trinity ‘s relief work has helped develop relationships with non-believers who donated their time and money to support Trinity’s work. More than half of the funds raised by Trinity Church have come from non-Christians.

Time for the Family to Leave the Island

Still, the work is exhausting. The Clarks were not immune from the storm’s effects, including three weeks with no running water and even longer without electricity except for an expensive propane generator. For more than three months Clark and his wife, Sarah, poured themselves into relief work, and they routinely assessed if their family — including four children — could continue to operate under such stress. After seeking the guidance of mentors and counselors, in January the Clarks decided it was time for their family to leave the island to rest and heal.

The decision to leave came with great sadness, as Clark had expected to serve in Puerto Rico for the remainder of his pastoral ministry career. And he doesn’t understand why God orchestrated these events, but he is content with the mystery of God’s design.

“We’re here to serve and give and don’t need to make sense of it all,” said Clark. “We’re very weary but very grateful.”

At times there are far more questions than answers about the future for Trinity Church, Puerto Rico, and the Clark family. But Clark is not worried. He remains confident that God will continue the work that has begun, and the Gospel will transform Dorado even after he is gone.

Epilogue

The work Clark began in Puerto Rico continues. Ronnie Garcia, pastor of Iglesia La Travesia in San Juan, has assumed leadership at Trinity Church, too. The two PCA churches have partnered with churches of other denominations to serve a neighborhood historically occupied by squatters. Church leaders visited every home in the neighborhood to learn the needs and abilities of residents. The churches also adopted two schools in the neighborhood and partnered with school officials to help the schools flourish. Trinity Church and its three partner churches also joined with a Puerto Rican nonprofit called Hunger Corp to develop a multi-year plan to revitalize the neighborhood.

“We are learning, when the rubber meets the road, how to really care for people,” Garcia said. “We don’t want to turn a blind eye to God’s providence that he has put us here. This was God’s idea, and we want to play our role faithfully.” 

One Response to Ministry in the Eye of 
the Storm

  1. I personally know pastor Ronnie, and the work he is doing with his staff and other churches around is just awesome. The team has done a fantastic job of “showing the hands and feet” of Jesus to the community. I encourage the brothers and sisters from the mainland to continue supporting your local PCA church plants in Puerto Rico. And thanks for what you have done so far! God bless!!!

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