This September marks the anniversary of Hurricane Maria, one of the most intense natural disasters to hit the Caribbean in over a decade. Recent studies estimate that of the 3,057 people killed by last year’s storms, 2,975 of those lives lost were Puerto Rican. These numbers continue to grow as the failing infrastructure on the island claims more casualties. The media has tried to unravel the causes of these deaths and scrutinize the failed deliveries of humanitarian aid that never reached residents. Corruption has been revealed at every level. Still, few have questioned the policies that enable it.
Though churches and ministries were instrumental in providing emergency relief on the ground, the faith community has often remained silent on the unique condition that keeps Puerto Rico in bondage. To grasp the trauma of this disaster is to pull back the veil of the island’s precarious relationship with the United States as a colonial possession. How do you survive a storm that has raged for over a hundred years? Acknowledging this history of oppression is critical if we are to support our brothers and sisters as they rebuild.
In his post-colonial treatise on the western church titled Christ Outside the Gate, Puerto Rican theologian Orlando Costas writes about the unique state of Latin America:
The Latin American neighbor’s cry is, above all things, a cry for justice and liberation. For the last 150 years, Latin America has been controlled by economic oligarchs and military forces. Externally, it has been at the mercy of international capitalism, having been made an economically dependent region with an industry, a labor force and an agriculture developed in function of the North American and Western European metropolis...Therefore, the cry of Latin America is for liberation from cultural domination, economic exploitation, military repression, social marginalization and political imperialism.
Written more than thirty years ago, this prophetic address tells the deeper story of Puerto Rico’s struggle. This struggle includes military occupation and industrial sprawl that has polluted the landscape. Debt wrought by predatory investments has brought austerity, stripping away public services. And now, after neighborhoods have been leveled to the ground, developers threaten to displace those without land rights.
Puerto Rico is not the only locus in the throes of empire. Everyday, U.S. borders are teeming with families who have been forced to migrate here after being driven away from their homeland. Much of this has been the result of American foreign policy that has destabilized those regions for political and economic supremacy.
Calls to “welcome the stranger” invite us to treat our neighbors with respect, offering sanctuary to those in need. But there has not been a significant effort to unpack the reasons why they leave. The church must embody the loving ministry of Jesus, but we are also called to be reconciled with those we have wronged before we come to the altar with our gifts to minister. Have we done enough to understand our Latin American neighbors in a spirit of reconciliation?
If we are to restore what has been lost in a place like Puerto Rico, we mustn’t gaze into the images of destroyed buildings and dispirited people with pity. Pity can be a substitute for action. Social activism is an important place to start. But centering the voices of indigenous and marginalized people is critical to the project of their liberation. Listening to their cry should be our first order of service.