In March, a group of 11 people from the church (and one youth from the Mount Carroll First Baptist Church) traveled to Puerto Rico to help in cleanup/rebuilding efforts following Hurricane Georges which ravaged much of the island.
Trip to Vieques
BY LARRY LIBBERTON
A concrete slab -- 11 feet wide by 50 feet long -- stands as a monument in Vieques, Puerto Rico.
The foundation of a new addition to the Esperanza Metodista Iglesia is a monument commemorating the recent mission trip by 12 Mount Carroll residents to the small island. Joyful singing and children's laughter will soon fill the new church sanctuary and kindergarten classroom.
Our group -- Mark and Chris Sack, Alan and Alissa Crouse, Bill and Josh Delp, Larry and Brett Libberton, Bill Timm, Paul Hitz, Danelle Daehler and Ashlynn Mason -- spent a week at the Methodist Church in Esperanza, digging the foundation's footing, mixing concrete, painting and doing small repair jobs.
"Everything happens for a reason" became the trip's motto and that saying was repeated many times during the week.
Originally, we planned to travel to Honduras to repair damage caused by Hurricane Mitch; however, when we discovered security and health issues, the focus changed to Puerto Rico.
Working through the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR), we selected a project on Vieques, a small island seven miles off the eastern coast of Puerto Rico's main island. Vieques suffered damage when Hurricane Georges swept through the area last September. Our project would include the demolition of a kindergarten at the Esperanza Methodist Church; the building had been damaged by George. Once the old structure demolished, a new building to house the class and a church addition would be constructed.
Before this trip, none of us had even heard of Vieques, but we learned that the U.S. Navy owns two-thirds of the island. The Navy uses the eastern and western areas of the island for weapons testing and storage and for bombing runs. Vieques's higher-than-normal rate of lung and breast cancer is blamed on the hazardous materials used by the military. The military is building a new radar installation on the island and many of the inhabitants are protesting the project.
Residents of Vieques hold no ill will toward America because of the military use of their island. They are more angry at the Puerto Rican government: most of the Navy usage fees benefit the main island, not Vieques. They see themselves as second class citizens.
Depending upon whom you asked, the population of the island is between 8,000 and 10,000. Spanish is the main language, though many of the residents also know English. Many of the people are on food stamps or other government assistance and the contrast in lifestyles was no more apparent than one block from the church: standing in the middle of the road: on one side there was a hut used as a home, while across the street was a beautiful modern house. Horses, chickens and dogs roamed the streets.
Hurricane Georges hit Vieques September 21-22. According to one resident, Georges destroyed 90% of the island's large trees, but since the hurricane hit, the weather has been unusually rainy, causing rapid regrowth.
We packed for the worst conditions -- mosquito spray, suntan lotion, a large first aid kit. We also took a large supply of tools, candy, toothbrushes and clothing to give away. We made sure our immunizations were current.
SUNDAY -- A DAY OF TRAVEL
Flying into San Juan, the hurricane damage was apparent -- bright blue tarps covered the roofs of many buildings. From the airport we traveled to the port city of Fajardo where we boarded the ferry for the one-hour ride to Vieques.
Upon arrival we were met by Kelly Escobar, the wife of the Methodist minister, and her father, Pedro. During the van ride from Isabel Segundo to Esperanza we learned the only health problem we might have during the coming week would be mosquito-born dengue fever; I was glad I had packed the extra strength OFF bug spray.
Our home for the next week would be a clinic next to the churchs parsonage. The clinic contained three bedrooms, several bathrooms, a kitchen but no hot water. The modern kitchen had a gas stove, refrigerator, even a microwave oven. The covered patio where half of us slept had ceiling fans for cooling and keeping the bugs away.
Vieques operates on what is known as "island time." Everyone is "laid back," not in a hurry. Stress here? I don't think so. Many businesses close during the lunch hour for siesta.
After a long day of travel from Mount Carroll to Chicago to St. Louis to San Juan to Fajardo to Isabel Segundo to Esperanza, Pastor Teodoro Escobar suggested that we sleep late Monday morning.
That sounded like a good idea to many of us, but Mark, group leader, made it clear that we were in Vieques to accomplish our mission in a week's time; we would be up and ready for work at 7 a.m.
I thought roosters only crowed at sunrise. I was wrong. They started their nightly serenades shortly after midnight.
MONDAY -- A DAY OF DISAPPOINTMENT
As promised, we were up at 7 a.m. with no definite direction on what type of project we were supposed to do, so we arranged a scrap lumber pile, pulling nails, categorizing wood, etc., and swept out a semi-finished shower room. Part of the group began organizing a storage room -- the church will use it to store items for use after the next hurricane: food, bottled water, tools, clothing. Church officials told us they needed a tool storage shed and we said if that is what they wanted us to do during our week in Vieques, we would do it. A quick building sketch was drawn and a supply list was prepared.
However, our work focus soon changed.
By mid-morning we were given our first assignment: dig a trench for footings for the church addition.
Several hours later -- after much sweat and work -- Julio, a resident overseeing the project -- returned and through an interpreter told us that we had dug a very nice trench; however, it was in the wrong place. Because of local zoning laws, they learned the addition couldn't be so close to the sidewalk.
The work began again three feet away.
As the work day ended, we discussed our disappointment so far -- that we expected to do serious hurricane repair, not the work we had just started. However, as we kept saying, "Everything happens for a reason;" there is a purpose for this trip.
TUESDAY -- WE FIND OUR PURPOSE.
Up at 7 a.m. again. Trench #2 was finished and the tool storeroom was re-organized and the floor painted.
Steel reinforcement rod-- cut by manual hacksaw -- was put into the trench.
After lunch we mixed batches of concrete by hand in the street.
This is the recipe for Puerto Rican concrete:
-- 2- 47 lb. bags of Portland cement
-- 1 1/2 wheelbarrows of sand
-- 2 wheelbarrows of gravel.
Mix the cement and sand thoroughly. Add the gravel and mix together. Make a crater in the middle of the pile. Add water and combine to the proper consistency. Shovel into wheelbarrows and transport to the work site, trying not to spill the gloppy sludge.
Repeat over and over. And over and over.
This afternoon we visited the kindergarten -- 22 smiling kids and their teachers. They were enthusiastic as we handed out toothbrushes and candy and took pictures of them.
Today we found our purpose for being in Vieques -- even though we thought we were going to do hurricane damage cleanup, building an addition to this church/kindergarten may be our mission. "Everything happens for a reason."
We learned that the kindergarten is a major source of income for the church. There are no public kindergartens on Vieques. In addition to reading, writing and arithmetic, students learn about religion.
Esperanzas Methodist congregation -- just a few years old -- has outgrown its present facilities. Sunday there was a crowd of 200 people for the worship service, causing "standing room only," and many people overflowing outside. The church is alive with activity -- services almost every night to capacity crowds; much of Viequess social life revolves around the church. But, while 200 people attended the Sunday worship serivce, the offering totaled only $10.97.
WEDNESDAY -- 95 FEET OF FOOTINGS.
Some of us finished painting the storage room and returned the accumulated supplies. After the cleaning there was much unused space, so a tool shed is probably unnecessary at this time.
The digging of a second, completely different trench began this morning.
By the end of the day, the trench was completed, re-rod cut and placed and eight batches of cement had been poured. In all, 95 feet of footings were needed.
The first course of cement block for the exterior walls was laid on the first section.
We also visited the kindergarten and gave them more candy and some toy airplanes. Bill T. and the teacher talked about establishing a pen pal program with the Mt. Carroll kindergarten classes.
THURSDAY -- THE PEOPLE.
Today seemed like a slow day. Our "supervisor," Julio, didn't show up until late in the day, so we were on our own.
We laid more blocks, mixed more concrete and did some forming for tomorrow.
A mission trip is not about the work and the sweat, but about the people whose lives you touch. And who touch yours.
Our lives were affected by many people on this adventure. There are many stories for each of them: Julio and Wilma, little Sarah, Jerry, Robert, Douglas, Grace, Pastor Ted and Kelly, both Pedros, the kindergarten kids, the elderly man who brought us arapas (fried dough), Spam and guava paste one morning, the countless friendly residents who walked or drove by the work site, smiling, waving and saying "Hola!" Ask us about them.
We also learned about each other. The group became a team. Each night the youth led a time of devotions and we shared our thoughts about the day. Even after a hard day of work, there were few nights when we crawled onto our mattresses before 1 a.m. After the second night, we didnt even hear the roosters!
We went to Vieques to work and work we did, but there was free time after the last cement was poured each day. The blue-green waters of the Caribbean -- only three blocks from the church -- rinsed the dirt, cement and sweat from us each afternoon.
Thursday night we visited Vieques's #1 tourist attraction -- the bioluminescent bay at Puerto Mosquito. Incredible!
The water of the bay is home to a microscopic organism with bioluminescent properties. (A firefly is also a bioluminescent organism.)
Every movement in the bay caused the protozoa to glow like mini-fireflies. The boat's wake caused a bright glow and when you let a handful of the water run down your arm, it looked like a handful of glowing, trickling glitter. Fishes, darting under the water, created trails of lightning.
Swimming in the bay under a moonless sky was a highlight of the trip. Click here to go to great site with pictures from the bay.
FRIDAY -- WE ARE INSPIRED.
We hauled two truckloads of fill dirt by wheelbarrow, formed up the site for tomorrow's pouring of cement, put in electrical conduit and more re-rod. The fill dirt was tamped down using a gas-powered compactor. Alan laid a new water line.
Tonight we went to hear Pastor Ted preach.
If youre ever searching for God, we can tell you He is alive and well at the church in Vieques.
The service -- 2 1/2 hours long and in Spanish -- was inspiring, even though we had no idea what was being said.
The Holy Spirit was there as the congregation greeted each other with genuine handshakes, hugs and kisses, sang, danced in the aisles, banged tambourines and bongo drums, prayed, laughed, cried and worshipped the Lord.
SATURDAY -- COMPLETION.
We were up at 6:30 a.m. to start pouring cement. Today we had the luxury of a rented cement mixer. Still, if you're not used to it, shoveling sand and gravel and wheeling a wheelbarrow full of cement is quite a chore.
There were no major problems and we finished about 1 p.m. The work project was completed.
Mark put our inscription in the corner: "Mount Carroll United Methodist Church 3/1999."
Later that night, after the cement had hardened, the mission group returned to the work site. There we all placed our hands on the cool pavement, prayed and asked for a special blessing for this place of worship.
Then we returned to the church for another worship service -- lasting nearly four hours!
After the service, Pedro got us all together and prayed for us. He said the congregation had been impressed with the work we had accomplished in our short time. Other groups had come, but worked for half a day and then spent the rest of their time on the beaches or sightseeing.
He said God had promised Pastor Ted a new church to hold the large crowds. We have been the beginning of this promise. The following week another team would continue the project.
There were tears around the circle as this eloquent man prayed.
Then, to top it off, we returned to the church to say goodbye to the many people we had called "amigos" the past six days.
Tears, hugs and sobs were exchanged. We have been deeply touched by this experience.
Later, Ted and Kelly gave each of us a T-shirt with their church motto: "Oasis of Blessing." That motto is so true.
SUNDAY -- GOING BUT NOT LEAVING.
In order to get to the airport on time, we had to ride the 7 a.m. ferry from Fajardo. That meant getting up at 5:30 a.m.
From the ferry we watched as the island of Vieques grew smaller, knowing that part of us would always be there.
Storm clouds threatened rain.
And then someone shouted, "Look over there."
Arcing from the clouds into the sea was a rainbow.
I thought about the Bible -- the rainbow being a sign of God's promise.
I thought about Pastor Ted and our new friends. The new church. The smiles of kindergartners.
"Everything happens for a reason."
Our reason for being here had been fulfilled.
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