April 28, 2020
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Last month, a solidarity team comprised of 18 students, facilities staff, administrators, and faculty members from Princeton Theological Seminary traveled to Puerto Rico to serve in partnership with local church centers and social service agencies to help meet the needs of community residents who have been and are still experiencing the trauma of recent natural disasters. In addition to working with representatives from the El Guacio Camp and Conference Center, Presbyterian Disaster Assistance, and the Evangelical Seminary of Puerto Rico, the solidarity team also partnered with the Calvin Institute for Christian Worship to provide an opportunity for worship to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Evangelical Seminary of Puerto Rico and to introduce the new hymnal, Santo, Santo, Santo.
In their reflections, members of the solidarity team share their experiences and their new perspectives on culture and their calling.
I felt spiritually renewed after serving alongside Princeton Seminary’s facilities and staff at the Seminario Evangélico de Puerto Rico. I spent most of the week painting the kitchen walls and first floor of the residence building. Each day I returned to this one task of painting, I felt myself slowly letting go of any worries that crossed my mind. After talking and laughing with team members about each day’s joys and frustrations, I realized that the peace of Christ is something that exists within me in every moment. All that’s required is that I let go of tomorrow’s worries and simply do the task of today. This trip I found that painting — or anything I do in a moment — can be peace.
—Ashley Mlacker, MDiv candidate
After a bilingual singing festival at Princeton Seminary last fall, Victor and I began to explore the possibility of offering a similar event in Puerto Rico as part of our solidarity team visit. One festival soon became two, the first to be held at the Seminario Evangélico de Puerto Rico (SEPR) in their small chapel, and the second at the Iglesia Presbiteriana en Hato Rey, pastored by PTS alum José Gonzalez. We collaborated with the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship, which generously contributed new hymnals for the events: Santo, Santo, Santo: Cantos para el pueblo de Dios / Holy, Holy, Holy: Songs for the People of God (GIA, 2019). I spent my mornings in San Juan in prayers with the solidarity team, and then studying Spanish. In the afternoons and evenings, I met and rehearsed with musicians at the seminary and local churches. As the weekend neared, so did the first waves of social distancing. We held our first festival on Thursday, giving thanks for the common mission of PTS and SEPR. It was a beautiful expression of our solidarity. Though it was necessary to cancel the second festival in order to begin practicing social distancing, several of the musicians met that evening for a ‘final rehearsal.’ The week did not end as we had hoped. Nevertheless, my work concluded with an evening of beautiful music and friendship, and the ‘gift’ of unfinished business! This storm, too, shall pass. I look forward to the reunion when it does.
—Martin Tel, C.F. Seabrook Director of Music
Princeton Seminary's trip to Puerto Rico was a transformative and grounding journey during an unsettling time. As a seminarian, it's easy to be hurried with schoolwork, jobs, and many expectations that place blinders on our view to the outside world. This trip to Puerto Rico let me see my blind spots and make deep connections with incredible people that I, otherwise, would have never been able to meet. Now, I know that I have support and fellowship with a larger swath of this community, from the Facilities family to professors and staff. The work was challenging as a translator and pastoral presence, but I'm grateful for the experience because it helped us all grow in community through this God-glorifying work. Another benefit — I now know much more about plumbing and construction! And I learned obscure technical words in Spanish! In all seriousness, I was honored to be included in this delegation and I hope to go back to La Isla del Encanto someday soon. Gracias y que Dios les bendiga!
—Carter Grant, MDiv candidate
Although it was my third mission trip to San Juan with the Princeton Seminary, it still is an enjoyable experience. To help those in need with the company of coworkers working towards a common goal is personally satisfying. A new kitchen completed with lights, outlets cabinets, new sink counter tops, and fresh paint will ensure more good cooking and fellowship. Speaking of cooking I'll always remember Juan in the break room providing us with three delicious square meals a day with an added smile! Another fond memory is singing along at night with the coqui' and waking to the sound of nearby roosters. If another mission to Puerto Rico shall arise it would be beneficial to have more drills, saws, ladders, tools, and materials to make the most out of the limited time we have to spend there. Sweat, hard work, laughter, and sweet memories of the smiling faces of those we helped will stay with me forever. Thank you, Princeton Theological Seminary, for the opportunity to join in this mission.
—Franco DiDonato, electrical supervisor
When Rev. Victor Aloyo extended me an invitation to go to Puerto Rico and participate in the restoration project of El Guacio Retreat Center's main building, I accepted without hesitation. As a Puerto Rican myself, I felt it was my duty. During our stay, strong friendship bonds were forged and the group dynamism, camaraderie, and commitment where outstanding. The group worked hard, and the final product was far beyond the initial expectations. I am still processing all the good things that we lived during those days: chapel time; moments at the table having breakfast, lunch or dinner; the casual conversation with someone of the group; or just the laugh of something unexpected. Although my body felt the fatigue of the hard work, my spirit was renewed. God’s presence was palpable at every circumstance and I am thankful for that. I want to congratulate Rev. Victor Aloyo for his excellent leadership skills, organizational capacity, and above all, pastoral care, which was evident every single day. Also, I'd like to thank Rev. Jeannie Salas, who supported the group unconditionally. Again, thank you!
—Samuel Márquez-Santa, MDiv candidate
When Wilmari Vargas, the executive director of El Guacio Presbyterian Camp in San Sebastián, PR, instructed us to tear everything off the walls and empty out the entire church administration building, I was not happy in the least. To say that I was hesitant would be an understatement; I was terrified. Why? I was absolutely certain that our team of ten would be unable to leave this building in a better state than we found it. Sure, it was dusty and filled with rotten furniture and termite-infested books. Sure, its walls were decked with fading photographs and its ceilings with peeling paint. Sure, it contained walls where they were unneeded and lacked them where they were. But taking this building apart felt like participating in its complete destruction. I had no vision for how this place could become a dental and trauma clinic, a museum, and a store. All I knew was that I was tearing it apart, and that did not feel good.
By the end of our short week at El Guacio — a week filled with daily devotions, arroz con gandules, salsa and scaffolding, spackling of sheetrock, and risas on runs to the local ferretería — this building was not only better than we found it; it was completely transformed. Not only had we emptied it out, but we had also painted its entirety with multiple coats of a vibrant orange, installed electricity, built walls out of sheetrock and wooden studs, and filled doors with cinder blocks and cement. It turns out, my imagination had been far too narrow. Yet what struck me most was not our productivity; it was our carpenter’s idea to repurpose old shelves to create a window with a door and wooden trim. I was stunned. Through such innovation, God taught me that sometimes, unimaginable transformation requires what seems like insurmountable destruction. And sometimes, God repurposes what seems purposeless. What’s more, sometimes God even uses you to do the transforming and repurposing. If we had not had the courage to tear the place down with no guarantee of something better, we would not have learned of the power of true transformation.
Para Dios, la palabra final no es la destrucción. Es la transformación.
—Melissa Roberts, MDiv candidate
My third trip to Puerto Rico was bracketed by COVID-19. We left with the virus not much more than a background nuisance, and we returned to a life-changing event. In between, the El Guacio team performed miracles. We took a building stuffed with forty-year-old moldy papers, pamphlets, and miscellany and created space for a dental clinic, a historical museum for the camp, and a small store. As we performed that transformation, we transformed ourselves. Roles of student, administrator, grounds worker, office and facilities staff evaporated, and what emerged was a collaborative effort from all as we became more of ourselves. That journey saw demolition, masonry, carpentry, roofing, and painting. It also held smiles, laughter, hard work, fatigue, and two dogs that entertained us. All of this took place in a mountain jungle setting that freely shared beautiful flowers, tropical trees, warm rain showers, and clean clear healthy mountain air. Several side trips complemented the journey with great food, a wonderful beach, and views from a restaurant perched (literally) on the side of a valley with 270* views. Coming back was like stepping into another world.
—Patrick Schretlen, carpenter
Upon arrival of the entire team on Friday, March 6, the team worked tirelessly together from 7:00 a.m. through 6:00 p.m. from Saturday, March 6 through Friday, March 13. Through each passing day, our lives were being transformed. We met and served beautiful, authentic, and inspired individuals who suffered the torments of two consecutive natural disasters, and as American citizens engage in the harsh realities and effects of a modern-day colonial regime.
Notwithstanding, these partners demonstrated their faith in God and unwavering determination to rise and claim their voice. Here we were, a group of individuals representing a variety of cultures and languages coming together and in celebration acknowledging that with love, determination, and a plan, there is more to this life that can unite than separate us. Over the past three years we have constructed and developed partnerships with the Evangelical Theological Seminary of Puerto Rico, the Inter American University, and El Guacio Presbyterian Conference and Retreat Center through formalized exchange programs and field education opportunities.
—Rev. Dr. Victor Aloyo, Jr., associate dean for institutional diversity and community engagement