“If anyone serves me, he must follow me; and where I am, there my servant will be also; if anyone serves me, the Father will honor him.” (John 12:26)
It was in a spirit of utmost service to God’s people that 18 students and 4 faculty members from St Joseph High School traveled to Puerto Rico to embark on an immersion trip centered around relief from the recent hurricanes Maria and Irma. The SJHS Francis Xavier International Scholars program provides trips for students to experience the depth of culture – in this case, the beauty of Puerto Rico – and learn to listen, embrace and serve our brothers and sisters who may need assistance. I hope that I can give you a brief glimpse of our trip.
We had the pleasure of working with the Mission Discovery team of Jimmy Rivera, its president, and Lauren Kemp, EMT and with the INT community which provided our lodging and meals. The Iglesia Nuevo Testamento (The Church of the New Testament) in Dorado, Puerto Rico and its pastor’s Juan, Edgar, and Wanda were more welcoming and compassionate than we could have hoped for, along with their community of volunteers. We helped this team at four different worksites, and along the way, the two daughters of Pastors Edgar and Wanda Agosto became fast friends with our SJ students. Genesis, a junior in high school, worked alongside of our team and Abby, a sophomore who is a fantastic cook, prepared several of our meals! Pastors Edgar and Wanda gave a testimony in the middle of the week, in which they shared their story of reckless abandon to God’s plan throughout their lives. Many of our students shared with us how deeply moving it was to hear their story of love – of God and of their daughters. They gave us a window through which to see the magnitude of God’s wonderful plan at work.
We were invited to serve at four locations. One site west of San Juan was an area of wreckage and debris caused by a cluster of trees that took down power lines to three houses in a small complex. We assisted in removing the trees and other debris to make room for a power line to be installed to reintroduce electricity after 10 months. Our second site was a house that was in disrepair because of its owner’s serious sickness. During the storm, the top level of the house blew off causing water damage throughout the house. We scraped and filled in holes in the ceiling, repainted all the walls, cleaned out most of the rooms to make them comfortable and safe for living purposes. It was quite a beautiful transformation to see; little by little the house came back to life. The third site involved taking care of the church that we stayed at (painting a children’s Scripture room, setting up materials for future volunteers, among other duties). The final site involved helping with upkeep, some power washing, scrapping in the house of an Army veteran who struggles with Multiple Sclerosis and cares for her mother, who has cancer. We all were invited to sit with her and listen as she shared photos and videos about her experiences throughout the hurricane and the past year. To say the least – her story was inspirational!
Each of our evenings concluded with reflections, journal writing, and fellowship. We took time to discuss our experiences and focused on “God-sightings” – specific instances in which we saw God at work in the people and events of our day. As a teacher, I was touched to see our students share their passion for their faith and a clear desire to deepen their relationships with Christ. Our students were also able to have conversations with their teachers about their progress in their journeys of faith in Christ, which I hope had a profound impact on them. In addition to our periods of reflection, there were plenty of opportunities for fellowship – from playing card games to playing basketball with Pastor Juan’s son, to even playing a serious soccer game in Dorado with some of the local community!
Our final day was spent on an adventure in San Juan. We began with a tour of El Morro (the fort of Old San Juan, dating back to the 16th century), and continued with lunch at a restaurant of authentic Puerto Rican Cuisine and walking time throughout downtown San Juan, visiting local historic sites like the tomb of Ponce de Leon. We ended our visit with a break-taking visit to the beaches of San Juan. This day offered us a historical perspective of the beautiful island of Puerto Rico and its people.
Perhaps one of the more influential aspects of our trip to Puerto Rico was the personal interactions and the relationships that we developed. Our SJ students were truly touched by the heart of a nine-year-old, fun-loving, spirited young girl named Daniella, who was the daughter of one of our chefs. She instantly bonded with our SJ students; she accompanied us in much of our work, and could often be found showing her fantastic gymnastic skills on-site! In a touching goodbye note to us, she shared how much she loved our students. In addition to Daniella, our hearts were forever touched by a member of the INT church, Carmelo, who first introduced himself as a “servant of God” to us. Through his stories of faith and love, and even in spite of a clear language barrier, we were able to get a glimpse of what a true love of Christ looks like.
We will always hold these experiences from Puerto Rico in our hearts. I have faith that our SJ students will continue to live out their calls, like Carmelo, to be “servants of God.” We take comfort in knowing that the students of St Joseph High School have and will continue to make a difference in whatever community God places them. Please continue to pray for our community, that Christ might continue to mold us into instruments of His love and peace, encountering Christ in the faces of all those we meet, including our brothers and sisters at home in the Diocese of Bridgeport.
Timothy Weiss, Chaperone of SJ Cadets Puerto Rico Immersion Trip