SAN JUAN, PR – Congregations in Puerto Rico – whose ministries have continued despite economic and natural disasters of nearly two decades – may well provide insight for North American Disciples on how to thrive, despite the limitations of an ongoing pandemic.
That was one of the takeaways of the Board of Directors of Disciples Church Extension Fund (DCEF), gathered in San Juan, Puerto Rico this summer.
The group received a warm welcome from Rev. Hilda Robles Florán, Pastora General de la Iglesias Cristiana (Discípulos de Cristo) en Puerto Rico – a separate national church body that partners with Disciples ministries in the U.S. and Canada.
The meeting included a presentation by economics professor Dr. Juan Lara Fontánez, on the financial conditions of the island after a nearly 20-year economic depression. It closed with a presentation by Rev. Osvaldo Delbrey, Pastor of Iglesia Cristiana (Discípulos de Cristo) El Señorial, on how the local churches and Disciples partners on the mainland, including DCEF, responded to the series of crises in Puerto Rico.
Between presentations, board members fanned out for two days of visits to local Disciples congregations, which included building tours, conversation, shared meals, and worship.
“The trip was eye-opening, in terms of just how bad economic conditions have been in Puerto Rico, dating back to at least 2006,” said Jeff Champeau, DCEF Board Chair. “But more astonishing was seeing congregations focused so intently on serving their neighborhoods during a decade-and-a-half-long depression.
“These people were hard hit long before Hurricane Maria flooded the whole island in 2018. Yet they served their communities steadfastly,” he added. “And then they stood up and praised God with everything they had in them.”
DCEF has provided the loans for every Puerto Rican Disciples building, as well as several ministries and El Centro Cristiano, the island’s Disciples headquarters, according to Rev. Gilberto Collazo, DCEF Vice President. Collazo, a native Puerto Rican and former pastor on the island, arranged the San Juan metro area tour for the Board. The relationship has evolved over time from one of colonization to more of a partnership, he said.
“Disciples in Puerto Rico and Disciples in the U.S. and Canada have much to learn from and teach each other,” said Collazo. “As the Hispanic population in the U.S. grows, Disciples in the mainland are gaining the cultural competency to better serve Puerto Ricans as peers in ministry.”
The gathering, which included Disciples General Minister and President Teresa Hord Owens, was the first meeting attended simultaneously by Robles, Owens, and Belinda King, DCEF President – all of whom are the first women of color to serve as top leaders of the Disciples organizations they represent.
An executive session of the Board highlighted new staff joining DCEF and included a progress report from President Belinda R. King.
“We are excited about Belinda’s progress in her first six months of leadership,” Champeau said. “She has fielded a promising group of new staff members to lead critical programs of the organization.”
In late June, DCEF announced onboarding five new staff members for services, marketing, and development.
The board is scheduled to meet again in Indianapolis in early November.