Puerto Rico

‘Meat’ the hands and feet of Christ

Responding to Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico

Lea en español

Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) is well-known for sending high-quality cans of turkey, beef, chicken and pork around the world “in the name of Christ,” providing vulnerable people with important nutrients when meat is hard to buy. Every year MCC’s mobile meat cannery travels across the U.S. and Canada, meeting over 30,000 people who volunteer to fill, weigh, wash and label every can.

What is less well known, however, is how MCC collaborates domestically with Mennonite churches and schools in Puerto Rico. Rolando Flores is the Puerto Rico program coordinator for MCC’s East Coast region. Through Flores’ peacebuilding work, MCC also occasionally distributes canned meat to our partners in the U.S. territory.

Before distributing canned chicken, Rolando Flores, Puerto Rico program coordinator for MCC’s East Coast region, his family and volunteers from Mennonite churches wrote encouraging words and phrases on the lids. “Love,” “blessed island,” “God does not abandon” and “rise up, Puerto Rico” are some of the words written in marker on the cans.MCC photo/Rolando Flores

“Every canning location has the option of keeping 10% of the canned meat they produce for local food pantries, churches, programs, etc. Sometimes MCC also distributes domestically, to places like Puerto Rico,” says John Hillegass, canning and trucking manager for MCC U.S.

In early May 2017, MCC shipped 200 boxes of beef canned in Fairview, Oklahoma. With Flores’ guidance, the meat was distributed by Mennonite churches and schools in Puerto Rico.

Rolando Flores, with a smile on his face, unloads a shipment of canned meat.MCC photo/Rolando Flores

This project, called the Family Strengthening Program, aided more than 500 people over the course of three months. According to Flores, “The arrival of the canned meat served as a great incentive for churches to strengthen their work, start new initiatives and create connections with other organizations [in Puerto Rico].”

That was before Hurricane Maria struck the island on September 20, 2017. Hurricane Maria “led to the discovery of the powerlessness of human beings,” according to Flores, who experienced the hurricane firsthand with his family, congregation and fellow Puerto Ricans.

He continues, “This event [created] the moment to be the hands and feet of Jesus Christ on our island. Here began the hard work of putting our [words] into action.” With the remaining May 2017 shipment of canned beef, Flores and his family were able to respond minimally to the effects of the hurricane in their community.

Flores says, “The support of my daughters, and especially my wife, is essential…they help me with the many things we do.” Flores’ family (left to right) consists of Katherine (age 15), Glorianne (age 17), Glorimar and Rolando.MCC photo/Rolando Flores

Days after the hurricane, with no electricity, no internet and very little phone service, Flores requested another container of MCC canned meat. This time, MCC shipped 800 boxes of canned chicken, canned in Spartansburg, PA.

Rolando Flores delivers this and 39 additional boxes of canned chicken to Pastor Walter Montañés of Vega Baja Mennonite Church. Because of this aid, the church could respond to the needs in their community after Hurricane Maria.MDS photo/Kevin King

Upon receiving the canned chicken, Flores distributed the valuable source of protein through Mennonite churches and schools. With the help of his family, Flores saw to it that the canned meat quickly reached more than 40% of the island’s municipalities, per Flores. Before long, other church denominations and non-governmental organizations partnered with Flores to help spread relief to the island.

Canned meat from MCC reached more than 40% of the island of Puerto Rico, as evidenced by the municipalities shaded in red.

In a distinct response to Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico, Mennonite Disaster Service (MDS) and Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) of Mennonite Church U.S.A. collaborated with MCC in December 2017 to ship boxes of food which held MCC canned turkey, among other food staples such as rice and seasonings. The 4,008 cans of turkey inside the food boxes came from volunteers in Hinton, VA, and Myerstown, PA.

MDS and ACC churches provided support to pay for the food, supplies and shipments, while MCC’s staff and the Material Resources Center in Ephrata, PA, gave logistical support. Oregon Dairy, a local grocery store and restaurant, provided the food supplies at heavily discounted prices. Tom Wenger, Material Resources Coordinator for MCC U.S., reflects, “The Puerto Rican hurricane response was a wonderful example of several groups coming together in working harmony.”

Members of Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) of Mennonite Church U.S.A. partnered with Mennonite Disaster Service (MDS) to provide boxes of groceries, including canned meat from MCC's mobile meat cannery, to families and communities in Puerto Rico that were affected by Hurricane Maria.MCC photo/Laura Pauls-Thomas

For many communities in Puerto Rico, the canned meat was the first sign of relief after Hurricane Maria. Flores explains, “People were surprised because when we arrived at some places, the government or other organizations hadn’t arrived yet. But the church did. With fewer resources, we did more.”

Flores has since been loaned to MDS to help with ongoing hurricane recovery as part of MDS’ long-term hurricane recovery response in Puerto Rico. Of his new tasks for MDS, Flores says, “It's a new adventure, because I've been working for 14 years with MCC, and I'm [still relating] to the churches, but from a completely different perspective now that we’re in reconstruction [of the island].”

Miguel González, security and purchasing manager of Summit Hills Mennonite Academy, helps to unload the container of canned meat in Puerto Rico. Miguel lives in Trujillo Alto, Puerto Rico. MCC photo/Rolando Flores

For those who volunteer their time to fill, weigh, wash and label every can of meat, Flores says, “It’s important that they know the reach that the cans of meat have. They’ve served not only to feed people and families, but to build bridges between churches, families and communities. All through a simple can of meat. It’s much more than a can of meat.”

Flores continues, “We have a saying that goes, ‘Hope is the last thing we lose.’” And thanks to the thousands of people who volunteer with MCC meat canning every year, people in Puerto Rico and all over the world will continue to hope.

Thank you to the many volunteers who make meat canning and distributions like these possible.

For more information on the 2017-2018 canning season, and to find out when they’re going to be in a town near you, visit mcc.org/canning.