After the worst of Hurricane Maria, Luis Paz and his family sang in the dark while they sopped up floodwater from their home in Puerto Rico. With each bucket filled and towel rung out, they repeated, “In the Lord, in the Lord / We hope in the Lord.”
During hours of singing and cleaning, he and his wife started to laugh. “I don’t know how it happened, but the Lord gave us a wonderful peace,” said Paz, a doctor and evangelist whose own surname means peace in Spanish. “He was with us. I know now what the disciples [meant] when they saw the Lord was with them through the storm.”
Across the Caribbean, Christians like Paz turned to God amid a hurricane season like no other. Record-setting storms Irma and Maria came through the islands just weeks apart in September, leaving uninhabitable conditions and ubiquitous damage expected to take months to repair.
When Christianity Today traveled to San Juan on the first Sunday after Maria, typical church services had been replaced by impromptu gatherings in homes or churchyards—when worshipers could make it out to gather at all. CDM Internacional, Puerto Rico’s largest Christian television network, and many of its Christian radio stations were off the air due to storm damage.
“I’m supposed to be at church right now,” said Paz, a member of evangelical megachurch Iglesia AMEC Casa de Alabanza in Canóvanas. Instead, he made his way through roads missing street signs, stoplights with no power, gas stations with lines around the corner, and puddles of standing water to the capital city to pick up a couple of generators for clinics in Manatí, along the northern coast.
Even without power, phone service, or buildings to meet in, Christians rallied to help, just as they helped neighboring islands hit by Irma the week before. The hurricanes brought a renewed sense of mission to the church in Puerto Rico and, for many, deeper faith in the God who brought them through.
“We are a believer island . . . but we started to be very comfortable in our churches. We abandoned our purpose of evangelizing,” said Paz, who leads twice-daily prayer in the hospital where he works and who holds crusades across Latin America. “Now, we are outside, bringing help to people. The church is in the streets.”
Protestants make up a third of the 3.4 million US citizens in Puerto Rico, where Catholics remain the majority, according to the Pew Research Center. More than half the island attends church weekly. This strong Christian presence accelerates the process of distributing resources and supplies immediately after disasters, according to Daniel Zeidan, a strategist at Samaritan’s Purse.
“We know churches are not relief agencies, but they have a role to play when there is suffering and loss,” said Zeidan, who flew to Puerto Rico aboard a plane packed with rolls of blue tarp, hygiene kits, cases of bottled water, generators, and red gas jugs—a portion of the 200-plus tons of supplies Samaritan’s Purse delivered across the Caribbean in September.
The metal warehouse the organization used as a drop-off in Puerto Rico for supplies bound for islands hit by Irma turned into a distribution point for local relief once Maria arrived as a Category 4 storm, the strongest to make landfall there in more than 80 years.
It left the US territory completely without electricity, crushed rows of trees like toothpicks, and twisted roofs off buildings—including the warehouse next to Samaritan’s Purse. About 3,000 churches were damaged, reported the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference.
“If a hurricane like that hit a place like Haiti, there would be many more deaths,” Zeidan said. “You can tell there already is structure in place.”
In practical ways, Caribbean churches have become better prepared for the threat of storms each hurricane season: Buildings are constructed to endure hurricane-force winds, forecasters can better predict a hurricane’s path, and social media networks allow congregants to quickly share warnings, pray, and coordinate relief efforts.
“As a congregation, we help each other during the preparation time, pray together a lot more, and help on relief efforts after the event,” said Gadiel Ríos, lead pastor of La Iglesia del Centro, a church with about 350 members in Arecibo. “The evangelical church is an ever-present force before and after these dire situations.”
The entire island was impacted, but the storm was a particular threat to residents in wooden homes, coastal areas, and flood-prone regions. One of the last major cities Maria passed through, Arecibo saw flood levels of 10 feet and winds over 155 mph. The city was eventually cut off from much of the initial relief efforts and desperate for aid.
“We deal with the hurricane season as a ‘normal’ thing in our region, but the giant scope—size, force, rapidness of development—of Irma and Maria are just of another league,” Ríos explained before the storm.
Earlier in the month, Irma pummeled nearby islands including Antigua, Barbuda, St. Martin, and Anguilla. Some islands spared by the earlier hurricane withstood flooding, landslides, and significant damage with Maria, including Guadeloupe and Dominica. The string of storms weakened the region’s capacity to assist and rebuild.
“After [Hurricane Georges in 1998], our building codes were upgraded for the buildings to withstand up to 150-mph winds,” Ríos said. “Now, with the 175-plus mph of these two monsters, our constructions will require additional design, thus increasing the costs of a living that is already too expensive to manage by the average local.”
Ed Brown, who oversees creation care efforts for the Lausanne Movement, warns against blaming worsening storms on God’s wrath. “A balanced theology of creation care accepts that God created a world in which the events that we call ‘natural disasters’ have a normal role to play,” he said. “Hurricanes, earthquakes, volcanoes, and the like are a normal and necessary part of the natural order, and we should not see them as judgment or punishment.”
Christians in Puerto Rico don’t ignore issues like pollution and environmental protection. But when it comes to hurricanes, most consider the risk an inevitable fact of life on their island.
“When we sin by destroying essential parts of God’s creation, we make these events worse, turning normal occurrences into human disasters,” Brown said. “This happens when development destroys natural flood regulation systems, when we remove protective mangrove forest barriers that would shield an island from a hurricane’s destructive force, and yes, when we modify the atmosphere to allow for larger and stronger storms.”
Scientists such as evangelical climate researcher Katharine Hayhoe warn that factors associated with climate change have the potential to worsen storms.
Puerto Rican pastors tend to view this year’s more severe hurricanes as a chance for the island’s Christians to grow in faith and see God’s presence in tragedy firsthand.
“This is an opportunity to learn, to grow up, to have more experience, to become more expectant in the Lord. That’s the way I see this hurricane,” Paz said. “Maybe we fall down right now. Maybe we have many types of questions. Why did this happen to us? But when we have questions, we go to the fountain of answers: the Lord.”
Other recent difficulties in Puerto Rico have placed the church in a better spiritual position to address the tough questions of theodicy—ones made even more difficult when families have lost their homes, resources are scarce, and the timeline to rebuild keeps getting pushed out longer and longer.
The country’s economic downturn has diminished the Word of Faith prosperity gospel boom that took off during the 1990s and 2000s, and Ríos sees a shift away from efforts to “bribe” God into blessings and toward a greater understanding of a God of grace who extends blessings freely.
“This present hurricane season is bringing the people back to the biblical, sound view of God. God is sovereign, good, and merciful but is not our servant; we are his servants,” said Ríos, president of ReformaDos. “Now we can understand the verses in Romans 8 regarding the days of comfort and the days of suffering. Both are his will, and both are for our wellbeing and for his glory.”
Such efforts to explain God’s presence in suffering have actually been shown to help victims of natural disasters.
Researchers including Jamie Aten, founder of the Humanitarian Disaster Institute at Wheaton College, discovered that when faith traditions offer people a meaningful way to understand a tragedy, they are more likely to cope with massive material losses and regain a sense of agency amid trauma.
“To the extent that survivors can find spiritual meaning in such events, the deleterious effects of disasters on mental health functioning may be reduced,” the researchers concluded in an article published last year in the journal Psychology of Religion and Spirituality. “Not only does this underscore the powerful role of spiritual meaning making in maintaining psychological wellbeing, but it also suggests that promoting meaning-making efforts in the survivors should be an integral part of the recovery process.”
It didn’t take a research study for Paz to recognize this effect firsthand, as he and his wife suddenly laughed while their house flooded—an incongruous feeling he believes came straight from God.
“The Lord is not good when Irma started to go out and not good this time [when Maria hit],” he said. “The Lord is good all the time.”
Even less devout people become prone to seek God and thank him during natural disasters, said Zeidan. “They’re open. They want to hear that there’s hope.”
A Samaritan’s Purse plane was the first humanitarian delivery to land on St. Martin after Irma, thanks in part to efforts by Jonathan Falwell—son of the late Jerry Falwell and pastor of Thomas Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg, Virginia—who happened to be vacationing on the island when the hurricane hit. Falwell returned to continue to minister to locals leading recovery efforts.
“As a pastor, obviously, this is something I talk about a lot. Whether it’s through a hurricane or through a death in the family, we live in a broken world,” Falwell said.
“It’s a reminder to me, an encouragement to me, that what we do—sharing the gospel of Jesus Christ—is vital,” he said. “It’s critical because Jesus is the answer to the broken world and to all the crises that we face.”
Maria left a lot of brokenness to be fixed in Puerto Rico. Residents imagined how things were before—when their homes were secure and dry, streets clear of splintered lumber and crumpled metal panels, and store shelves stocked.
Groups including World Vision, Adventist Development and Relief Agency, and Baptist Global Response set out on missions to meet the great physical needs in the Caribbean. During the recovery process, Paz prayed that desperate Puerto Ricans would rely on God—and not merely relief forces and federal aid—for their hope and strength.
“We will have our homes again and have electricity again. But if we learn that the Lord is our strength, we will grow from this moment,” he said. “Four months, five months, six months, one year, the important thing is not how long will be the waiting; the important thing is the strength of the heart.”
Editor’s note: An online version of this print story was published on September 20.
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