The steep road was the kind where those who get car sick (me) have to avoid looking out the window. We were not quite sure of our exact destination (attempts to contact a local pastor had not yet been successful) as we headed up a mountain in the center of the island of Puerto Rico, but intended to experience “the center.” The sun was rapidly sinking, as was the measure of the close-to-empty gas tank. Fortunately, we soon saw a man who told us there was a gas station in 10 miles. As we filled up the gas tank and bought some snacks, we discussed the two options: go back down the mountain now, while there was still some light to get around the sharp curves, or continue to Jayuya, hoping to find the church and either a place to stay or a less windy route downhill.
I was one of four people in that small sedan, including our coordinator/hostess, our pastor/team leader, and our worship leader with his guitar, all coming to help at a retreat for local pastors later in the week. Though we had a couple “extra” days, we hadn’t exactly expected to be in the mountains that late in the day.
Three of us had arrived the day before, after red-eye flights from Arizona (me) and California, with a layover in Chicago—not exactly “on the way.” Our hostess had been there a bit longer, getting enough repairs done on her property for us to stay there. Although she’d been living in CA for quite some time, her familiarity with the island was evident as she took us to see the old-town part of San Juan and the remaining fortress, where we witnessed a beautiful sunset.
On the way to her house, an hour from San Juan, we had to find a place to pick up bedding for the night, and despite missing an exit, made it to K-Mart just before it closed at 9pm. When back on the road, it seemed bumpier than before… or perhaps it was the car. We pulled over for inspection; the left back tire was completely flat. The one man in the group stated that the last time he’d changed a tire was in the 90s, but it couldn’t be too difficult. Upon unloading all our baggage, we were glad to find all the needed tools, and managed to efficiently replace the tire with no help from AAA.
After finally arriving, unpacking, and some cleaning and making beds, I took a welcome shower, appreciating the running water (even if it wasn’t hot). Earlier we had talked about leaving at 8am the next day (which would’ve been 5am on Pacific time!), but after a couple hours of conversation, getting to know each other better, an early rise was no longer mandated. By the time we were all up, we were hungry enough to search for breakfast at a nearby restaurant, dropping the tire off for repair at a shop on the way. The primary expectation for the day was to get a good view of the island, including the central parts that had suffered the most damage from Hurricane Maria, particularly in the area where we had the connection with the local pastor.
First we visited the only tropical rainforest of the US National Forests, despite entrance being very limited by the hurricane. After a smell of burning when going back toward San Juan, we decided to stop by the rental company, in hopes of a replacement, but were told everything was fine, extra use of brakes going downhill would cause the smell, and only paying for an upgrade would get us a replacement. Our curvy ascent didn’t start until another two hour drive to Ponce, near the southern coast, hence, our late arrival and subsequent dilemma.
The “we’ve already come this far, we should at least try to see it,” reasoning prevailed, and by the time we reached Jayuya the sun was long gone. We found “la plaza” (for every town must have one!), and nearby saw a small church with lights on and people inside. They were about to start a prayer meeting and invited us to join them. One recognized the name of the other church, noting that the pastor was out of town. There was only one hotel in town, and we were told it was best to check if they had rooms, as other “workers” might be taking up space. So as the others joined the meeting, the team leader and I walked to the hotel, where all the doors were locked, but a posted paper gave a phone number to call. After a couple attempts we got an answer, only to find out there were no rooms available. The cushions on the church benches were starting to look appealing. Back at the church, Rosa*, who had earlier given us instructions, met us outside, to hear the report. With little to do right away, we joined the service. We were received graciously: our worship leader was invited to play one of his songs; our pastor gave her short message; and at the very end the leader stated that he found out I was a psychologist and asked if could share something. The fact that this was all is Spanish made me less confident, but a few simple words about the presence of God in all trials, our need for His love, and the importance of our love for one another was sufficient. (Phew!)
As the service ended with final sharing, Rosa spoke up, saying that she hadn’t really wanted to attend that night, but felt God’s prompt, and now realized it was so she could help us, and she was so glad she’d come. Afterwards, she told us she had found a place… it was a government-purchased hacienda, under renovation to become a hotel, but partially functional—at least enough for the four of us. Everything was pretty simple with our lack of luggage (though I was glad for the “just in case” articles: toothbrush, bug repellent, extra water, etc.), and I was tired enough to sleep well. Surely we would get home early enough the next day for some down time before beginning our “ministry.”
Of course, that was unrealistic. Rosa invited us to her house for breakfast, and we got the inside story on the effects of the hurricane—the losses, the fear, the lack of resources, the flashbacks when the island had a blackout the week before our trip (everyone rushed to the gas station for back-up fuel to run their generators). At the same time, unity and cooperation among local churches blossomed, each contributing different areas of strength. There were still multiple areas of need, both practical and in areas like mental health care. This story was similar to many others I had heard in Puerto Rico: Maria was devastating, yet God used it in powerful ways in the lives of individuals, families, and communities, including the church.
After finally leaving Jayuya, we had a few more “detours” and didn’t get back to the house until after 6pm, taking about 15 minutes to pack up, throw everything in the car, and head toward San Juan. So much for an afternoon of getting ready for the next day! I went to bed feeling tired, and not very prepared.
Yet, the past two days had reminded me that God has the capacity to transform the things that go “wrong” that is far greater than our ability to capitalize on the things that go “right.”
Indeed, God was at work, and my own insufficiencies continued to point the credit back to Him. Remember that He is in control.
*Name changed for privacy