Puerto Rico: Preparing for a Bountiful Harvest
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IMPACT ON THE AG
Iván De la Torre, the AG district superintendent for the Puerto Rico district, says the disaster continues to have a far reaching impact on the churches, pastors, and congregants.
“One hundred churches were damaged by Hurricane Maria,” De la Torre says, “and of those, 40 were completely destroyed. Up to now, only 12 of those churches have been rebuilt.”
De la Torre says that many people simply abandoned their homes and then left their cars at the airport. Also, due to the lack of power and businesses being unable to reopen, many professionals were among those who left.
This has left the district and churches with significant financial challenges. Rebuilding/repair costs, damages not covered by insurance, churches unopened or missing the 20 percent who give the 80 percent of the finances, as well as preexisting loans that have payments due all have had a crippling effect.
And what’s rarely talked about is the far-ranging post-traumatic stress people are experiencing at all levels on the island.
REASONS FOR HOPE
The outlook for Puerto Rico and the district council and churches would be extremely bleak if God wasn’t in the mix — but He is.
In some ways, the future for the Assemblies of God in Puerto Rico and its impact upon countless lives, has never looked brighter.
“We are grateful for what the national office and especially for what Convoy of Hope has done,” De la Torre says. “The first six months after the hurricane, with Convoy of Hope, we touched the lives of 150,000 families, or about half a million people, and distributed about eight million meals to families.”
The national AG church was also some of the first out on the streets, reaching out, providing resources, and helping people the best that they could. De la Torre notes that one pastor, even though he had lost his home, was out helping others rebuild their homes.
And Wilfredo “Choco” De Jesús’ church, New Life Covenant in Chicago, home to many with relatives who live in Puerto Rico, sent 29 pallets of relief supplies by transport plane just days after Hurricane Maria struck. The church also flew relief workers in for weeks and partnered with Convoy of Hope to get additional relief supplies to those in need.
AG endorsed chaplains arrived in December 2017, holding Resilience conferences for pastors. The meetings were designed to help pastors process through their losses and give them the tools to make a strong comeback. This December, the chaplains are returning to Puerto Rico to hold follow-up conferences to check on the progress of pastors and to continue to encourage them in their recovery.
What’s more, work teams are hearing of the needs and are starting to come into Puerto Rico to assist the district and churches in rebuilding and recovery.
“We have enough lodging and transportation available for two groups every week,” De la Torre says. “And we have placed Humberto Pizarro in charge of logistics for groups wanting to come — just contact the district office.”
Convoy of Hope is continuing its presence in Puerto Rico. Starting in December, the compassion ministry will be hosting at least five regional outreaches in each of Puerto Rico’s five districts over the next year that are evangelistic in nature.
Jeff Nene, national spokesperson for Convoy of Hope, says these outreaches will be similar to the typical COH outreach where groceries are distributed, a meal is served, kids’ play areas are set up, and a variety of different free services are provided — hoping for 500 to 1,000 families at each location.
“We will also have Connection Tents at the outreaches,” Nene says. “There, we ask people if there is anything we can pray with them about. We will be partnering with local churches to serve in the tents and to do the aftercare. Those church members will do the follow-up on individuals matched to their church. It’s much more likely that people will go visit a church if they are personally invited, meet someone from the church, and the church is close to where they live.”
De la Torre, who frequently mentions his gratitude for Convoy of Hope, says the compassion organization is going to continue to help rebuild homes while church groups and possibly MAPS and Builders International teams will focus on rebuilding churches. “Although many of the weeks this year already have teams coming, 2019 is wide open,” he says.
A HARVEST FOR THE HARVEST
As unlikely as it may seem, Hurricane Maria was a blessing in at least one way. In order to help fund ministries and pay off debts, under De la Torre’s leadership, the district office had begun an agricultural effort, planting lettuce on some of its four acres of property to sell to local grocers.
But before that effort could come to fruition, Hurricane Maria wiped out the garden. It was a blessing in disguise. With the help of a local farmer, the district retooled. Now, instead of growing crops in the ground, they plant seeds in foam mats and the seedlings grow to maturity in PVC pipes using nutrified water.
“It’s called hydroponics,” De la Torre explains. “By using this method, lettuce, which takes 60 days to mature in the ground, is ready to harvest in 30 days. It’s also considered organic when grown by this method.”
Currently the district has three 40-by-60-foot canopy systems, complete with foam seeding mats and PVC plant-growing system. The system is capable of growing 100 different types of plants.
“We are already selling fresh produce to grocers,” De la Torre says, “and they want more, a lot more.”
De la Torre explains that 80 percent of all fresh produce is shipped in to Puerto Rico, and many times the “freshness” of the produce is questionable. The demand for truly fresh produce grown in Puerto Rico is high — so high that the government, wanting to see the district’s efforts succeed and grow, has exempted the project from 90 percent of potential taxes.
In the near future, the district wants to increase the number of canopy systems it operates to six, with a goal of 18 canopies on the district office grounds. Every six canopy systems (which cost about $3,500 each) produces $10,000 worth of produce a month. The profits from each canopy’s harvest go toward reducing debt and investing in ministry.
“We are also working with Teen Challenge Puerto Rico, where those in the program assist us in growing the produce,” De la Torre says. “This way, we get the help we need and they are taught a trade.”
De la Torre says that the desire is that one day Teen Challenge, which has land of its own, will have its own canopy systems that they can use to become self-sustaining.
“We also have 58 acres at our campgrounds, some of which we could also use for agriculture,” De la Torre says. “And the best part is, if a hurricane comes our way again, we can harvest whatever we have and then dismantle and safely store the canopies until the storm passes.”
AT PRESENT TIME
The future is indeed bright for the Puerto Rico district. With good will being earned by its efforts through the national church and Convoy of Hope, teams coming in to rebuild homes and churches, ministry to ministers continuing, extensive outreaches scheduled, and a plan to one day be totally self-sufficient through agriculture, the Puerto Rico district and churches may have never been on the precipice of a more exciting time in their history.
However, De la Torre recognizes that in order for the future to be fully realized the district needs to get on solid financial ground quickly. “Due to the hurricane we haven’t been able to make all of our loan payments, so we’ve recently created Project Nehemiah — building a strong foundational wall from which to move forward.”
Through the Project Nehemiah campaign, De la Torre is reaching out to districts, churches, and individuals to help the district raise $300,000 — already 25 districts have pledged (and 13 have already given) their support — so it can afford to consolidate and refinance $3 million in loans (which have a moratorium of zero percent interest until March 2019). De la Torre understands what this means for the long-term debt reduction and how, with plans for increasing the agricultural capacity of the district to support ministry, this could place the district in a very healthy and strong position for ministry.
“We’re not looking to live off of handouts,” De la Torre states. “This is a one-time request. Our goal is to be self-sufficient and pay our own way — and more.”
Dennis Rivera, director of the AG Office of Hispanic Relations who provided translation for the interview, states, “What they [the district and churches] are getting is a hand up as many people and ministries have responded to help a sister district and its churches,” he says. “The district will be stronger after Maria, than before.”
Despite the material losses and emotional pain that is still very real for many in Puerto Rico, De la Torre has never wavered from a core belief that has guided him through the stresses and traumas of the last year. He states it with a genuine smile: “God is good.”
. . . and God is continuing to prove De la Torre right.
To contact the district for more information or to learn how to help, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 787-798-5947 (9-5 EST, Tuesday-Friday).