Church and government collaborate on Puerto Rico rebuild

By Josie Rabbitt Bingham

COMERIO—”If I was to describe the effect Hurricane Maria had in Comerio, it was total devastation,” said Josian Santiago, mayor of Comerio, Puerto Rico.

Comerio is a mountainous town nestled on the east side of Puerto Rico. Before the hurricane hit in 2017, the town had a population of 20,779. Now, thousands of homes sit empty on tree-covered hills.

“In the commercial sectors, in the homes, the hurricane affected the most poor of families, schools and police stations,” Santiago said. “Practically everything was destroyed. It was very painful for us to live that experience. We are still in the process of trying to recuperate.”

Many of the homes need roofs and expert carpentry work. That’s where the mayor stepped in, offering his carpenter to local Southern Baptist church planter, Jorge Santiago, who had asked the government for a list of people his church could help.

“Pastor Jorge is very involved in the community,” said Bob Wallingford, director of recovery for Send Relief Puerto Rico. “He invited me to the town hall to the mayor’s office to talk about projects. During the conversation, we found that the government has carpenters who work for the city. And I said, ‘Give me one. Give me one carpenter, and I’ll put a team of volunteers with them. We can help people rebuild their houses.’”

With the government partnering with local churches and FEMA’s Valor program providing construction materials for voluntary agencies like Send Relief, the people in Comerio are able to begin rebuilding their lives. Wallingford estimated 220 homes needed roof repairs.

“We have managed the collaboration of the church and the municipality,” Santiago said. “It was the church’s desire to work the cases that were in most need. They needed the support and skill in managing construction. From there, they identified which families had been most affected. We were able to help the church reach those places and at the same time collaborate with municipality workers who are skilled in carpentry construction work. They would direct the process of the construction with the support of the volunteers who came as part of the mission work they have come to do.”

Carlos Tirado was one of the carpenters who was part of the collaborative effort between church and municipality to rebuild and restore Comerio.

“I assist the teams that come from the United States to do repair and reconstruction to the homes,” Tirado said. “I also supervise them in certain aspects being that the majority of them do not have construction experience and are learning.”

One of Tirado’s jobs was to train the volunteers on construction safety and to ensure that high-quality work was being done. But he says the partnership between church and state is also enjoyable.

“I enjoy the company of the volunteers,” said Tirado. “Their charisma, affection, enthusiasm and their desires to work and help other people who’ve lost everything in the path of the hurricane is extraordinary. They understand it’s for a purpose. What they do is come and help the people.”

For Jorge Santiago, church planter and pastor of One Church, the ability to work with his local government and rebuild his city was an answer to prayer. More than 120 Puerto Ricans gave their lives to Christ this year when Southern Baptists shared the gospel.

“The partnership came through prayer,” said Jorge. “God put in my heart the idea to go and reach out to the mayor of the city and just offer him my resources. We believe through prayers we can do greater things. That’s exactly what we are seeing right now. We’re seeing an answer to prayer.

“Through this partnership and all the work God is allowing us to do in Comerio, we have the opportunity to minister to all people,” Jorge said. “God is pouring His love in Comerio. There’s something special happening here that we don’t get to see in other cities in Puerto Rico. I’m very honored to be part of that.”

To watch videos on the collaboration between Comerio’s church and state, click here.

Read our Instagram profile series on the Mayor, the Carpenter, the Pastor and the Recovery Director.

Josie Rabbitt Bingham writes for the North American Mission Board.

Published September 4, 2018