Lighting the darkness
MBU students share hope deep in a drug-infested neighborhood of Puerto Rico
It’s a dirty hairpiece. It’s a ragged teddy bear. It’s a plastic necklace. It isn’t much, at least to the standards of most college students. But to Bethany Gray, the mishmash of second-hand, tattered belongings is priceless.
Gray was one of about two dozen Missouri Baptist University students who spent part of this past summer reaching out to people in an impoverished neighborhood of Arecibo, Puerto Rico. The weeklong trip, sponsored and coordinated by MBU Campus Ministries, changed lives —here and there.
“They have so little, and we have so much,” said Gray, a junior who is pursuing a bachelor of science degree in business. “Some of these children seriously couldn’t afford basic resources like a toothbrush. And, still, they gave us presents. It was so humbling.”
Gray received her presents — embodiments of love in the purest form — from a little girl who didn’t own a pair of shoes. And that kind of poverty is not uncommon. Forty-five percent, or roughly 1.8 million Puerto Ricans, live at or below the poverty line.
By some estimates, as many as 100,000 Puerto Ricans are homeless, according to “Equal Justice Magazine,” a congressionally-chartered nonprofit organization created to help ensure that poor Americans receive equal justice under law.
The neighborhood of Arecibo, where the MBU students ministered, is Puerto Rico’s poorest of poor. The MBU group partnered with First Baptist Church of Arecibo Baptist, a group of about 50 people who for decades have been determined to spread Christ’s love to a community strangled by drug addiction and crime, said Jonathan White, MBU campus pastor and coordinator of the trip.
While there, MBU students led Vacation Bible School and helped build a house for a single mother. But the highlight of the week for most was the day the group served the homeless in what is considered the most hopeless — and drug-nfested — part of the neighborhood.
The group spent the day doling out food and stuffed animals outside of government-owned housing where Puerto Rican officials send drug addicts and their families to live. Hundreds of homeless people, many high on heroin — Puerto Rico’s drug of choice — slept on the streets adjacent to the complex.
“Everybody understood that being a Christ follower never guarantees safety, but you are safe in Christ no matter if you’re persecuted,” White said. “Suddenly, feeling scared didn’t matter anymore. It was like, ‘All of the glory to Christ.’”
The group ministered to people whose arms were plagued by infected needle tracks, sure consequences of drug addiction. From a distance, the students, wearing protective gloves, could see people shooting up inside makeshift tents. One man’s infected arm was swollen to nearly twice its typical size, White recalled. Used needles and broken bottles littered the ground.
Meanwhile, children played soccer — barefoot.
“My eyes were so open to the total depravity of man,” said Karen Kratzer, an MBU junior who had not previously been on an international mission trip. “To see the hunger, it broke me. I could not speak, only take it in — memory by memory. Their faces still haunt me.”
But things are changing —albeit slowly. Arecibo Baptist Church, with the help of missions groups like MBU, is resolute in its will to transform the neighborhood. The church has paid for dozens of addicts from their neighborhood to enter drug rehabilitation centers in the United States.
Members of the church feed the homeless daily. They help the widows. One month, the church building went without electricity after members decided to spend money allotted for their utility bills to help get some people off drugs.
MBU students helped invoke that change.
“That week, we didn’t have any AC, TV, iPods, computers, Facebook, whatever,” White said. “But every single person who went on the trip was more plugged into the purpose of life because they were called into what Christ had called them to do. They felt that joy and peace.”
Remarkably, the neighborhood’s main drug lord accepted Christ during their day spent at the government-owned housing. MBU students prayed with him. When the group left, he was considering entering a rehabilitation center in New York.
And then there’s Arecibo’s next generation. The gifts Gray received were indicative of the love the neighborhood’s children possess, despite their living conditions. Every morning during Vacation Bible School, the MBU students watched as the children, in their boisterous Puerto Rican language, sang “Jesus Loves Me” with all of their heart.
White added, “I felt like it was as if Jesus was walking down the street with us. He would have been doing the same thing. We were doing His work.”