Mennonite Central Committee and Mennonites in Puerto Rico
Over Mennonite Central Committee (MCC)’s more than 100 years of relief, development and peace in the name of Christ, the organization has faithfully pursued well-being for all of God’s children around the world. From the early 1930’s to today, that has also been true for those who live on the island of Puerto Rico, a U.S. territory.
Mennonites and non-governmental organizations, including Mennonite Central Committee, have had a notable impact on the island of Puerto Rico in the areas of health, education and community-building. Beginning in 1935 with the Puerto Rico Reconstruction Administration (PRRA), Civilian Public Service (CPS) in 1943 and MCC’s current-day partnerships with Puerto Rican Mennonite churches and Mennonite-affiliated non-governmental organizations, the Mennonite church continues to carry the message of love, peace and hope to Puerto Rican communities.
Puerto rico reconstruction administration (prra): 1935 to 1940
In 1935, the U.S. government created the Puerto Rico Reconstruction Administration (PRRA) as part of the New Deal established by the administration of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. The program was to address a territory hit hard by the Great Depression and a number of hurricanes.1 Their efforts included rural rehabilitation, electrification, forestry, employment, health, education, business development and other initiatives. The program ended in 1940 due to the start of the second World War, when the U.S. directed those resources toward the war effort.2
The U.S. Department of State then decided to send Conscientious Objectors (C.O.s), who largely consisted of individuals from Mennonite and other religious groups, to Puerto Rico so that, instead of serving in the war, they could “serve the poor” during WWII.3 For this reason, a group of C.O.s, also known as Civilian Public Service (CPS) workers, arrived in Puerto Rico in 1943 for their alternative service.
Civilian Public Service (CPS) was provided under the United States Selective Service and Training Act of 1940. The program was for C.O.s who were unwilling to perform military service. Of the 12,600 young men assigned to CPS camps, 38 percent were Mennonites.4
The U.S. Education Commissioner at that time was Martin G. Brumbaugh, who was also an ordained minister with the Church of the Brethren. The denomination had created the Brethren Service Committee to help needy communities during World War II. The organization created and oversaw around 15 Civilian Public Service (CPS) camps in 1942, which were located throughout the U.S.5
Brethren service committee, mcc and civilian public service: 1943 to 1946
In the early 1940’s, the Brethren Service Committee invited Mennonite Central Committee to set up a CPS camp in south central Puerto Rico to offer community health and recreation programs. The unit became known as Civilian Public Service (CPS) Camp No. 43 Subunit 2, also called the La Plata project. The camp opened in Aibonito in 1943 at the direction of camp director Wilbur Nachtigall and grew to 25 workers (both men and women) by 1944. The CPS unit closed in December 1946 and had involved the participation of more than 42 U.S. mainland workers and 20 Puerto Rican workers.
Because the workers’ assignments were located in the center of the island, this is where the Mennonite church began to take root in Puerto Rico. Later, Mennonites spread to various towns on the island.
The PRRA provided the La Plata CPS unit with a Community Center, a number of recreation facilities and a bunk house that contained six simple rooms and a warehouse. The bunk house was converted into a medical clinic in the mid-1940’s, which transformed in time into the Hospital General Menonita (Mennonite General Hospital) that exists today in Aibonito.
The projects of the MCC-administered CPS camp focused on the health of the community. The CPS workers’ early efforts emphasized agricultural education, recreation and community relief for families in the form of a milk station, hot breakfasts for children and clothing distributions.6
In 1950, administration of the program was transferred from MCC to the Mennonite Board of Missions and Charities, who had begun evangelistic work in Pulguillas in 1945.7
During this time, a woman named Edna Ruth Byler traveled with her husband, J.N. Byler, to Puerto Rico. Edna Ruth Byler grew up near Hesston, Kansas but moved to Akron, Pennsylvania in the early 1940's when J.N. Byler began serving as the director of MCC’s relief program.8 During her 1946 visit to Puerto Rico, Byler met women in La Plata Valley who were struggling to feed their children. Having lived through hard times herself during the Depression, she knew the face of poverty. She also knew the importance of dignity and people wanting a way to help themselves. She saw the pieces of fine embroidery the women of La Plata created, but had no place to sell. Byler brought the pieces home and began to sell to friends and neighbors. This grassroots “fair trade” effort of Edna Ruth Byler became SELFHELP Crafts of the World, an official program of MCC. In 1996, SELFHELP became Ten Thousand Villages, a retail company independent of MCC that sells fair trade products in over 300 specialty shops in the United States.
The Mennonite church in Puerto Rico: 1955 to today
As the number of Mennonite volunteers at the La Plata Unit increased, they organized more religious activities among themselves. However, the volunteers couldn’t fully serve Puerto Ricans’ spiritual needs because of two barriers. First, many volunteers experienced language problems. They didn’t have command of the Spanish language, and this made it difficult to communicate. Second, the volunteers weren’t sure if their Selective Service assignments would allow them to do religious work on CPS property due to the separation of the church and government.
Even so, each volunteer worker was strongly motivated by their religious convictions and wanted to organize a Mennonite church.
In 1945, the MCC executive committee authorized the construction of a chapel (dedicated on March 17, 1946), which was the start of a relationship between Mennonites and Puerto Ricans that continues to this day.
Over the years, missionaries from mainland U.S., alongside local Mennonites, started church plants that would eventually become formal churches. The campus of a Mennonite church in Pulguillas included a bilingual primary and secondary school called Escuela Menonita Betania (Bethany Mennonite School). Mennonite Board of Missions had a radio station in the 1940’s called, “Luz y Verdad” (“Light and Truth”) that reached various Spanish-speaking countries around the world.9
In 1955, Mennonite churches in Puerto Rico were organized into the Convención de Iglesias Menonitas de Puerto Rico (Puerto Rican Mennonite Conference). The conference originated from the work of CPS (1943) and the Mennonite Board of Missions (1945) and was admitted into General Conference Mennonite Church membership that same year.
In 2022, there are various groups of Mennonites in Puerto Rico. The Convención de Iglesias Menonitas de Puerto Rico has 12 congregations. The Misión Evangélica Menonita del Caribe (Evangelical Mennonite Mission of the Caribbean) has six congregations. Two Mennonite congregations in Puerto Rico form the Puerto Rico Mennonite Council of South Atlantic Mennonite Conference. Two congregations belong to Southeastern Mennonite Conference. Two congregations are independent.10
Ongoing MCC service opportunities and projects
In recent years, MCC has sent Puerto Rican young adults to serve through the Serving And Learning Together (SALT) program to Honduras, Nigeria and Bolivia. SALT is a yearlong cross-cultural service experience for Christian young adults from the U.S. and Canada. Local communities also participated in MCC’s International Volunteer Exchange Program (IVEP), a yearlong volunteer work and cultural exchange opportunity for young, Christian adults outside the U.S. and Canada. IVEP participant Antonio Manrique from Colombia served as an IT specialist in 2013 at Academia Menonita Summit Hills (Summit Hills Mennonite Academy) in San Juan. Various congregations have participated over the years in MCC’s Summer Service program, a 10-week service program that nurtures and equips young adults of color for leadership within their home church or community organization.
From 2009 to 2021, MCC developed and administered counseling, mediation and family strengthening projects under the direction of Rolando Flores-Rentas, who served as MCC East Coast Program Coordinator for Puerto Rico during that time. Through these projects, MCC offered psychological counseling, conflict mediation, spiritual support and food assistance, among other services. Flores-Rentas had also served as MCC Peace & Justice Coordinator in Puerto Rico from 2003-2009. Flores-Rentas currently works as Southcentral Pennsylvania Program Coordinator for MCC East Coast, a role created in 2021.
Jean Carlos Arce serves as the current MCC East Coast Program Coordinator for Puerto Rico. MCC’s current programs in Puerto Rico address food insecurity through canned meat distributions. Many Mennonite churches in Puerto Rico have family support programs that utilize resources sent by MCC, like canned meat.MCC joins with church and community partners to distribute comforters and hygiene kits that address the immediate needs of Haitian migrants and people who are impacted by natural disasters.
MCC also facilitates peacebuilding workshops for young adults, pastors and church leaders on the island. MCC engages young adults from Anabaptist congregations through activities that care for God’s creation, like beach cleanups or visits to urban gardens.
MCC responds to disasters through partnerships: hurricane maria, earthquake and the covid-19 pandemic
In September 2017, the devastating Hurricane Maria entered Puerto Rico. The devastation had taken the smile off many Puerto Rican families’ faces in that moment. Many families lost their homes. Schools and workplaces were not functional, and there were gasoline and medication shortages. Medical treatments were interrupted and there was no electricity or telephone service on the entire island for many weeks. Over 50% of the island didn’t have access to potable water, and personal hygiene items and food were scarce.
MCC’s recovery work began when Flores-Rentas and his family started visiting towns where Mennonite congregations were present. The first help was in the form of small economic contributions for the pastors of these congregations. The financial boost could help their communities and MCC provided lamps, generators and tools such as chainsaws to cut trees that were blocking roads.
Flores was seconded to Mennonite Disaster Service (MDS) beginning in October 2017 to provide on-the-ground support as the non-profit organization responded to those whose homes were damaged by Hurricane Maria. MDS is a volunteer network of Anabaptist churches dedicated to responding to natural and human-made disasters in Canada and the United States.
MCC and MDS sent multiple shipping containers to the island in the weeks and months after Hurricane Maria which contained more than 20,000 cans of meat and bottled water and hygiene items. In December 2017, MCC shipped more than 2,000 boxes containing rice, oil, beans, salt and other grocery essentials thanks to a collaboration between MCC, MDS and Atlantic Coast Conference of MCUSA. After the initial relief response, Flores and MCC partnered with MDS to rebuild more than 75 houses with the help of weekly volunteer groups from the mainland U.S.
Without having completely recovered from Hurricane Maria, January 7, 2020 brought an earthquake that shook the southern part of the island. Hundreds of people started to sleep outside their houses for fear that an aftershock would collapse their home. MCC sent psychologists from the Family Strengthening Program to bring psychological support to affected individuals. MCC shipped a new container full of canned meat, comforters and personal hygiene items from the MCC East Coast Material Resources Center (MRC) in Ephrata, Pennsylvania. MCC’s collaboration with MDS continued, this time to make reinforcements to the houses in the town of Ponce that the organization had previously reconstructed due to Hurricane Maria’s damage. Reinforcing the structures ensures that they can be safe against future earthquake activity.
And in March 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic arrived in Puerto Rico. The government shut down all operations on the island, MDS stopped sending volunteers and MCC began to lead within the new reality of a deadly pandemic. Three years after Hurricane Maria, ten months after the earthquake and eight months into the pandemic, MCC continued responding to the physical needs of Puerto Rican families through counseling, mediation and family strengthening projects and through partnership with MDS. Key to MCC and MDS’s efforts were Demetrio Flores, volunteer project director of the southern region of Puerto Rico, together with Anthony Gonzalez, a local volunteer group leader from southern Puerto Rico. Thanks to their house reinforcement efforts over the past months, more than 90 people are sleeping under a secure roof in Ponce.
Looking back, looking forward
The work of MCC in Puerto Rico beginning in the early 1940’s has adapted to all that the island has experienced, the needs that have come from those events and the strengths of the MCC staff and volunteers who have served on the island. Looking toward the next century of MCC’s work in Puerto Rico, MCC will continue to accompany church and nonprofit community partners. Through seminars and workshops, including peace camps for Anabaptist young adults, MCC will build partners' capacity as they support marginalized communities and address needs like food insecurity and the harms caused by climate change.
Please pray for MCC as we continue walking alongside Mennonite churches and nonprofit partners to share God’s love and compassion with Puerto Rican communities in the name of Christ.
1Living New Deal, https://livingnewdeal.org/glossary/puerto-rico-reconstruction-administration-prra-1935-1955/, story published in September 2015, accessed December 1, 2020.
2Felícita Bermúdez Vda. Alvarado, “60 años respondiendo al llamado de Dios,” San Juan, PR: Convención de Iglesias Evangelicas Menonitas de Puerto Rico. 2008.
3Mennonite Disaster Service (MDS), https://mds.mennonite.net/blog/celebrating-70-years/, story published June 11, 2018, accessed December 1, 2020.
4Melvin Gingerich, Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online (GAMEO), https://gameo.org/index.php?title=Civilian_Public_Service, story published 1953, accessed December 1, 2020.
5Church of the Brethren, https://www.brethren.org/news/2012/civilian-public-service-camps-anniversary/, story published on April 4, 2012, accessed December 1, 2020.
6Civilian Public Service and MCC, https://civilianpublicservice.org/camps/43/2, story published in 2015, accessed December 1, 2020.
7Justus G. Holsinger, David W. Powell and James Adrian Prieto-Valladares, Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online (GAMEO), https://gameo.org/index.php?title=Puerto_Rico, story published in April 2020, accessed December 1, 2020.
8Preheim, Marion Keeney. (1986). Byler, Edna Ruth (1904-1976). Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 17 November 2022, from gameo.org/index.php?title=Byler,_Edna_Ruth_(1904-1976).)
9Levi C. Hartzler, Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online (GAMEO), https://gameo.org/index.php?title=Mennonite_Board_of_Missions_(Mennonite_Church), story published 1957, accessed December 1, 2020.
10Justus G. Holsinger, David W. Powell and James Adrian Prieto-Valladares, Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online (GAMEO), https://gameo.org/index.php?title=Puerto_Rico, story published in April 2020, accessed December 1, 2020.