“Hot towel, sir?”
As I grabbed the steaming white washcloth and began to rub my hands with it, the broken blister on my right hand stung a little, and the dichotomy of the moment was striking to me.
Just 18 hours prior, I had created–and broken–that blister as I happily swung a machete to condense a massive pile of debris in front of an old woman’s fence in metropolitan Mayaguez–a place where, like most of Puerto Rico, a lot of folks don’t have power, and have large trees sitting on their fences and homes.
Now, I’m in First Class on my way home, quickly spirited back to a world of luxuries and conveniences, with memories–and wounds–fresh in my mind.
What in the world just happened? Was it all a dream? Had anything really changed?
Let’s rewind a bit.
To say I’ve been in a funk the past eight months or so is an understatement. I moved to Boise from Portland more than two years ago, from a city where I had been the editor of the local newspaper and the worship leader at a local church, to a place where I essentially knew no one.
Starting over is tough, and it was. It is. I haven’t really made consistent connections past that of my one co-worker at my office. We tried to start a small group, and it fizzled after only a few months. I’ve joined several ministries, only to find that I’ve just been working harder with no one to really share life with (but said outcome was not the purpose of doing ministry, of course).
It’s been miserable.
I don’t throw around the word “depressed” a lot. I think there are people who can be sad or upset, and then there are people who, whether from crushing circumstances or from clinical/chemical cocktails, live with a constant cloud over their heads.
I didn’t know the difference until this season, the first where I can honestly say I’ve been depressed. This was situational, a nagging loneliness that snowballed into an avalanche of feeling worthless, insignificant and alone. People around me (outside my wife, boss and discipleship pastor) haven’t really helped the situation, either. I don’t think (or rather, I hope) that it’s intentional; I think that by and large people don’t know how to deal with struggling people, especially if internally they’re saying to themselves, “I don’t think I have the energy to fix this.”
My broken heart is a problem bigger than one person. Individuals don’t have to solve the problem. But as someone who truly believes he’s starting to climb out of this dark time, I’ll say this: Others do have the power to help the struggling begin their comeback.
I was never going to save Puerto Rico. I knew long before boarding my first flight that the damage there is extensive and the recovery a massive job. This is an island that is, give or take, a five-hour drive around its perimeter, and the way I’ve described the damage there is this: It’s as if warplanes descended on Puerto Rico, firing constantly over every single square foot of the island. Not every building, not every tree, not every street sign has been damaged, but every PLACE has damage. Whether it’s downed power lines, smashed patio roofs or missing second stories, at any given place on the island you can find evidence of Hurricane Maria’s tyranny.
So yeah, I can’t fix that. What’s the point, right?
I saw the news coverage. Heard of the devastation. Read the pleas of the people there to their mother country to not forget them. Something inside me broke. It’s hard for me to think that anyone feels sad or forgotten, especially in their time of need–how much worse for potentially an entire territory-nation.
I sent our missions director a simple email asking if our church was going to send teams to Puerto Rico, and ultimately agreed to be part of the first team in Mayaguez (on the island’s west coast) because I wanted to look people in the eyes there with the gaze of Jesus and remind them that they’re loved, they’re valuable, they’re worth fighting for in this time of trial, and that people care.
My team and I did this mostly by going to homes where fallen trees had become a hazard or nuisance, sawing those trees into little bits, and carting those bits away. We managed to clear debris that affected nine properties, and even had a full day to bless our extremely generous host church in Mayaguez by cleaning their facility, removing their debris, and buying them tools. We also made water filtration systems that will affect countless families in the area, at a time when the municipal water systems can’t be counted on.
We moved a LOT of timber. I sweat more than I ever have in my entire life (and with doing BodyCombat classes, that’s saying something). We were cut, covered in mud and blisters, hit with sticks and eaten by bugs. And man, it was great.
Our achievements for just five days of work were many. But in the grand scheme of the needs there in Puerto Rico, it’s a drop in the bucket. But you know what isn’t just a drop in the bucket? The smile of Norma and her grandsons as she graciously thanked us for dissolving a gargantuan tree that had smashed onto her property. The tears of Luis as we prayed for him and his family. The pained embrace of a middle-aged woman, Barbara, whom we happened to meet at a coffee shop in Cabo Rojo where we heard her sad story of being evacuated from the U.S. Virgin Islands during Hurricane Irma only to find herself stranded in Puerto Rico after the 1-2 punch of Irma and Maria made her lose everything. And that doesn’t include great conversations with our driver/translator/co-laborer, Abdon, Mayaguez Pastors Marvin and Carmen, and our team.
People. People is why I came to Puerto Rico. I couldn’t stand by and let even the couple dozen people I met in Mayaguez feel invisible, even as I was feeling invisible myself.
Yes, there’s still much to be done, street to street and house to house. Even the homes we helped still don’t have power and have to run their water through a filter. But that’s the whole thing about relief missions; they bring relief, somewhat lessening the load for those who are burdened.
Yep, that’s it. I wholeheartedly believe in traveling to places of crisis, wherever they are, to help, but even when that’s not possible, I think maybe we all need to be on the lookout for relief missions, wherever they are.
No, you probably can’t fully solve the problems that plague nations or individuals’ hearts. But you can, symbolically, chop down one tree, drag it to the dump pile, and repeat as you have the energy. Remember, relief isn’t fully restoring what is broken; it’s lessening the load, if even by a little bit.
For some people, that’s making a phone call. Maybe it’s a text saying you’re thinking about someone, or asking how they’re doing. Maybe it’s asking them to a coffee for 30 minutes (you don’t have to give all day). Look, people aren’t charity cases–nobody wants your pity–but they do want your love.
If you don’t have love, well… then it sounds like you’re the one in need of some relief. Truth is, to some degree, at various levels and at various times, we all are. Love always lessens the load.
And I bet you’ll find, as I did, that getting outside of yourself and lessening someone else’s loads, lessens your own. It’s a beautiful cycle of an upside down kingdom.
People need Jesus. Geniunely be that to everyone, in whatever way you’re called.
While I carried many, many literal loads this past week, indeed my internal load has been lessened as a result of being in Puerto Rico. Timbers of isolation have been sawed as a group of strangers became like family, sharing tasks, meals, and our stories. Debris of cynicism started being carted away as I witnessed a genuine love of the people we served, and a genuine love from the people we served. Many downed trees of my heart were cleared as Jesus dwelt in our midst, making room for new saplings of hope to breathe.
Most of the problems and questions that existed before I left–both internally and in Puerto Rico–still exist as I careen towards home at more than 500 miles per hour, and to think otherwise is self-deluded tomfoolery. But there has been relief. There has been connection. There has been a deposit in my own heart. I feel a pull to go back and do more work, fix more things, meet more people. Jesus’ love keeps coming back.
And that love–whether it comes from helping or being helped–is a spark to light up the darkness, reason enough to get up and try again.
And that’s a start.
Epilogue: My heart is that you read this not as my saying this Puerto Rico trip was about me. It DEFINITELY was not. God was all over it, and it was/is truly about HIM. As I began processing the things we experienced there, it was clear to me that God had something else to show me about this difficult season, and that He was doing something in me all along. The trip was and IS worth it all by itself. But that’s the way God works. He doesn’t only use people to get jobs done; He uses jobs to get people done.