ALLOUEZ — People from the Green Bay Diocese spent several days offering Christmas meals to families in Puerto Rico last month. But perhaps the biggest gift exchanged was a lesson in discipleship experienced by meal servers and recipients.
That was one memory Maria Garcia, Jane Angha and Emily Jenks brought home from their Christmas visit to Puerto Rico Dec. 18-23. The three women, Diocese of Green Bay employees, were joined by Griselle Montalvo. Garcia and Montalvo are members of St. Willebrord Parish in Green Bay and natives of Puerto Rico. The two women wanted to help family members in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria hit the Caribbean island Sept. 20.
Garcia, who serves as administrative assistant for the diocesan Department of New Evangelization, shared plans with colleagues and Angha, young adult coordinator for the Department of Evangelization, who suggested young adults help raise funds for Puerto Rico. The result was a “Breaking Bread with Puerto Rico: Home for Christmas” meal and fundraiser on Nov. 17 at St. Willebrord Church.
The event and other donations, totaling around $18,000, helped feed approximately 400 families.
“The trip was fabulous and went really well,” said Angha. “It made us really grasp just how big our church is – and how beautiful it is to be part of the Body of Christ.”
The group arrived in San Juan on Monday, Dec. 18, rented a car and drove to Juana Diaz on the southern coast. On Dec. 19, they began making plans to purchase food and arrange collection sites at four parishes. They met with the bishop of the Diocese of Ponce “just to say hello and let them know what we were doing,” said Angha.
A local banana distributor donated the transportation of food from Walmart to St. Joseph Church in Ponce on Dec. 20. “There was a team (of parish volunteers) waiting for us and … we packed 350 bags of food and managed 400 cases of water,” said Angha.
Each bag contained a three-pound canned ham, two cans of pigeon peas, two cans of tomato sauce, traditional seasoning, a one-pound bag of coffee, one case of water and one dozen cupcakes. Elderly recipients also received bottles of Ensure.
The first meal distribution took place Dec. 21 at St. Joseph Church, where the parish also offered a Christmas program for meal recipients. “We had a chance to talk with people, pray one-on-one with a few and share some treats before loading up a van and our car for the next distribution,” said Angha.
The other food sites included Garcia’s home parish of San Martin de Porres in Juana Diaz, Santiago Apostol Parish in Santa Isabel and San Mateo Chapel in Villalba, located on the island’s mountainous area.
“It was evident that the hurricane left a ton of destruction in that area,” said Angha. “The rain and high winds tore roofs off, caused rockslides and left most without power there. It was evident when we finally made it up to the top of the mountain. People had traveled quite a ways and by various means to meet us there. The young pastor prayed with all of us and then we distributed the food with the volunteers and priest.”
Garcia said that interaction with people at the distribution sites often brought the group to tears.
“On the way down the mountain (in Villalba), as we were distributing the last meals, we spotted an elderly couple outside of their home,” she said. “I jokingly said, ‘Christmas came early for you. This is a gift from the Lord.’ She had a look on her face as if she was surprised, confused and grateful at the same time and then started crying.
“I said, ‘Please don’t cry, we were hoping to make you happy, not make you cry,’” added Garcia. “All she managed to say was: ‘But we have suffered so much!’ None of us could hold back our tears at this point. It was a feeling of sadness because we could feel her pain and the struggles in her voice, but at the same time we felt joy because we were able to do something good for them.”
Jenks, who serves as the Fox Cities’ regional coordinator for Young Adult Ministry, said the opportunity to “live in solidarity with the people of Puerto Rico” was something she will remember.
“Experiencing a week with no electricity gave me a new perspective on what is a daily aspect of living for many of those affected by the hurricane,” she said. “I gained a new appreciation for the sun rising and setting, conversation over a dim dinner without the distraction of electronics and simple meals made over boiled water.”
Taking the extra step of traveling to Puerto Rico to distribute Christmas meals rather than sending donated funds was an example of discipleship in action, explained Jenks.
“As missionary disciples baptized into this body of Christ, we are called to something greater,” she said. “This call requires us to go beyond meeting basic needs, to recognizing the dignity of each individual. In Puerto Rico, our response to this call was met in greeting each person we met, adding that extra love in the form of a hug or a piece of candy to a child.”
The group expressed gratitude to members of the diocese who donated money to the “Breaking Bread with Puerto Rico” fundraiser.
“We were so moved by the generosity of the church of Green Bay,” said Angha. “Families donated money instead of buying Christmas gifts for each other. Families and communities pooled money to be used for food, water, bug spray or solar lanterns. Little dresses were sent so children would have a Christmas outfit to wear this year. This is what church is: Generous, kind, compassionate and selfless. This trip provided so many of us a chance to be missionary disciples — sharing the good news and making a difference.”
According to Angha, the Christmas trip to Puerto Rico is not the end of the story. Remaining funds not used at Christmas will help to further the work in Puerto Rico.
“We hope to engage a team from Green Bay to work with our new contacts and friends (in Puerto Rico) to plan and design another trip that will focus on social innovation and making change — empowering and equipping young people to care for their families and neighborhoods,” Angha said. “This will be the heart of a conversation the team will have when we meet at the end of January. What we hope to do is to go beyond charity to work for justice.”