MCC photo

Civilian Public Service (CPS) workers from Camp 43 gather for a photo in front of the Mennonite health clinic in Aibonito, Puerto Rico in the 1940's.

Over Mennonite Central Committee (MCC)’s 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.

Emma Showalter (left) and Juan Bautista (right) at work in the Mennonite General Hospital Laboratory in the 1940's.MCC photo

Clinic day at Mennonite General Hospital.MCC photo

Mennonite General Hospital women's ward. MCC photo

Juan Bautista, x-ray technician at Mennonite General Hospital. MCC photo

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

The holstein dairy cows coming in for milking, MCC photo

Community boys playing on the basketball court.MCC photo

During this time, a woman named Edna Ruth Byler traveled with her husband, J.N. Byler, to Puerto Rico. J.N. Byler served as the director of MCC’s relief program. During her 1946 visit, she 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 has over 100 stores in the United States and Canada.

Edna Ruth Byler (far right) and husband J.N. Byler (second from right) in Puerto Rico, circa 1946.MCC photo

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.8

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.

There are currently various groups of Mennonites in Puerto Rico. The Convención de Iglesias Menonitas de Puerto Rico (Puerto Rican Mennonite Conference) has 12 congregations. The Misión Evangélica Menonita del Caribe (Evangelical Mennonite Mission of the Caribbean) has six congregations. Two congregations belong to Southeastern Mennonite Conference and two congregations are independent.9

Pastor Rolando Flores (and Puerto Rico program coordinator for MCC East Coast) preaches during the Sunday church service at Summit Hills Mennonite Church in San Juan, Puerto Rico in September 2019. MCC photo/Diana Voth

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.

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, Puerto Rico. MCC photo/Rolando Flores

Jesus Martir Melendez, 2019 Summer Service participant serving at Iglesia Menonita Faro de Salvación (Lighthouse of Salvation Mennonite Church) in Ponce, Puerto Rico, leads vacation bible school activities for local children and youth in July 2019. MCC photo/Edith Rodriguez

SALT participant Edith Rodriguez is from Aibonito, Puerto Rico and served as a nurse with MCC partner Faith Alive Foundation in Jos, Nigeria from 2017-18.MCC photo/Edith Rodriguez

MCC developed and currently administers counseling, mediation and family strengthening projects under the direction of Rolando Flores, who serves as MCC East Coast Program Coordinator for Puerto Rico. Through these projects, MCC offers psychological counseling, conflict mediation, spiritual support and food assistance, among other services.

Many Mennonite churches in Puerto Rico have family support programs that utilize resources sent by MCC, such as canned meat.

Pastor Jose Luis Vargas of Iglesia Evangélica Menonita de Betania, Puerto Rico, explains in September 2019 how their food pantry works at the church. One of the main staples of the grocery bags they hand out is MCC canned meat. They also received food boxes from Mennonite Disaster Service (MDS) and MCC's Atlantic Coast Conference after Hurricane Maria in the fall of 2017. Vargas also serves on the executive committee of the MCC East Coast board.MCC photo/Diana Voth

Pastor Hector M. Lugo Vazquez (Iglesia El Buen Pastor, Hatillo), Pastor Deborah Montalvo Natal (Iglesia Menonita Camino de Vida, Utuado) and Hector's wife, Sandra Jimenez stand near a stockpile of canned meat in the church storage area in Utuado in September 2019. This MCC canned meat is pre-positioned in this remote part of the island in preparation for the next natural disaster. MCC photo/Diana Voth

MCC RESPONDS TO DISASTERS THROUGH PARTNERSHIPS: 2017 TO TODAY

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 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 man-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.

Rina Maria Garcia Rosal, 2017-18 International Exchange Volunteer Program (IVEP) participant from Guatemala, and Anita Beidler from Forest Hills Mennonite Church in Leola, Pa., pack a food box with rice and other canned goods. Members of Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) partnered with MDS to provide grocery boxes to families and communities in Puerto Rico that were impacted by Hurricanes Irma and Maria. The grocery boxes were packed and stored at the MCC Material Resources Center in Ephrata, Pa. and were shipped in November 2017. MCC photo/Laura Pauls-Thomas

Rolando Flores (right) takes a selfie with MDS volunteers and a container of canned meat, hygiene kits, blankets, towels and large tents shipped by MCC in response to the January 7, 2020 earthquake in the southern part of the island of Puerto Rico. This photo was taken in Ponce, Puerto Rico in February 2020, before the COVID-19 pandemic reached Puerto Rico. MCC photo/Rolando Flores

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. 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 continues 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 are 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 can sleep under a secure roof in Ponce.

Rolando Flores-Rentas, MCC East Coast Program Coordinator in Puerto Rico, organizes MCC canned meat and portions out other grocery items at Iglesia Menonita de Summit Hills (Summit Hills Mennonite Church) in San Juan, Puerto Rico, on April 7, 2020. The food relief was distributed to the community through Mennonite churches in Puerto Rico in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, which made it difficult for people to access food.MCC photo/Glorimar Mojica Anthony Emigh, an engineer from JZ Engineering in Harrisonburg, Virginia contracted by Mennonite Disaster Service (MDS), works at reinforcing the foundation of a house in Ponce, Puerto Rico in January 2020 in response to the January 7 earthquake in the southern part of the island.MCC photo/Rolando Flores

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 envisions the counseling, mediation and family strengthening projects to reach more municipalities on the island in continued collaboration with local Mennonite churches.

Please pray for MCC and our partners as we continue walking alongside Mennonite churches to share God’s love and compassion with Puerto Rican communities in the name of Christ.

MCC staff and church and community members at Iglesia Evangelica Menonita de Aibonito shared about all the ways that MCC canned meat has blessed their community. This photo was taken in September 2019 when the MCC mobile meat canning crew visited Puerto Rico.MCC photo/Diana Voth


Sources:

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.

8Levi 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.

9Justus 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.