A week ago, I returned from Puerto Rico, where I’d spent the previous week helping to rebuild a home destroyed by Hurricane Maria. Almost immediately, my wife and I began preparations for Thanksgiving. It was, to say the least, a disconcerting juxtaposition of events.
Puerto Ricans have spent the last year working to recover from the horror that nature threw at them. That part of the island we saw has moved forward, but electricity is still an iffy proposition, and the town in which we volunteered went several days without running water while we were there, not an uncommon situation. The most profound impression I was left with as a result of my time on the island was an overwhelming sense of admiration for the way Puerto Ricans have pulled together to help one another.
Maria took the roof off the house we worked on, and everything inside was destroyed. The family who’d lived there—wife, husband, and five children—have been living for the last fourteen months in other homes through the generosity of their fellow townspeople. Like so many of those affected by the storm, they haven’t the money to rebuild on their own.
The concrete walls withstood the hurricane blast but everything else needed replacing. The team before us had put on a roof, a good thing because we often worked during heavy rains. Our team labored almost entirely by hand: digging the trench for the electrical line, a full day and a half using picks and shovels to make our way through hard clay and debris; daily sifting sand that had been gathered from local beaches until it was fine enough to be used for plaster; mixing concrete with shovels on the bare floor of the house, then pouring it bucket by bucket. At the end of every day, tired to the bone, we returned to the Methodist camp where we were housed in dorms.
We did this for a week, some of the hardest physical labor I’ve done since the decade I worked construction as a much younger man. And then we returned to Minnesota. But the people we left behind continue with the hard labor of putting homes, neighborhoods, and whole towns back together. This is the daily reality for so many on the island.
The economic situation in Puerto Rico is bleak. There simply aren’t enough jobs, so a great many Puerto Ricans have left. Official estimates are that by the end of 2018, 200,000 residents will have fled Puerto Rico for good. But what we found was that those who remain face the future with hope, with courage, with perseverance, and with an admirable graciousness of spirit.
So, at our Thanksgiving meal this year, in addition to all the usual blessings for which I gave thanks, I offered a thank you for the example of those we met and shared time with in Puerto Rico, a prayer for their full recovery, and a vow to return to do what I can to help.