Hardship in Puerto Rico

Provisional Bishop Wilfrido Ramos-Orench introduces Bishop-elect Rafael Morales Maldonado. | Photo: Nina Nicholson


In its first visit to Province 9 since 2008, the Executive Council held its regular quarterly meeting in San Juan, Puerto Rico, on June 9-11. The visit, which had been scheduled for months, came at an auspicious time for the island and the Episcopal diocese there.

On the last day of the meeting, Puertorriqueños overwhelmingly voted in favor of statehood for the island commonwealth, which has been reeling financially in the wake of filing last month for the largest municipal bankruptcy in American history. The vote was largely symbolic, as only Congress has the power to designate Puerto Rico as a state.

Meanwhile, the Diocese of Puerto Rico is preparing to consecrate a new bishop in July, more than three years after the island’s longtime bishop retired under a cloud in the wake of unspecified disciplinary charges.

Presiding Bishop Michael Curry celebrated a bilingual Eucharist at St. John the Baptist Cathedral, flanked by Provisional Bishop Wilfrido Ramos-Orench and Bishop-elect Rafael Morales Maldonado. Ramos-Orench has led the diocese since March 2014, succeeding Bishop David Alvarez, who had served since 1989.

At a news conference after the council adjourned, Curry said the three-day meeting had done a lot of work that was “transitional” in nature — important, but not coming immediately to fruition. He said the most significant part of the meeting may be simply “the fact that we were here.”

“We’re here in Puerto Rico as Puerto Rico is struggling and seeking to discern its future and how the people of Puerto Rico will live their lives together. The Episcopal Church, the diocese here, is intimately involved in that work,” he said, particularly in health care and social services.

“It’s very important now for the church to be the prophet of hope for our people,” Morales said, in a brief interview after the Eucharist. “Listen, we have economic problems, but this is not the end. It’s the beginning of new opportunities.

“We’re prepared to deal with these hardship situations,” he said. “I’m promoting self-supporting models for the congregations,” urging them to seek private funds and federal grants to generate resources for mission.

In the long term, he sees the potential for growth in the diocese, predicting that in the next decade the diocese will add 10 more congregations to the 52 that currently worship on the island.

Karen Longnecker, chairwoman of the council’s World Mission Committee, described the challenges faced by the island. “Forty-five percent of the Puerto Rican population lives in poverty. Forty-five percent, including more than 50 percent of Puerto Rican children. Over the past decade, hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans have left the island for the United States, leaving the debt burden to fall on the shoulders of fewer and poorer populations.”

Longnecker, who is from Albuquerque in the Diocese of the Rio Grande, went on to describe cutbacks in Medicare and Medicaid, drastic reductions in public education, and ongoing strikes that are further disrupting the economy of the island.

The council took action on several fronts during the course of the meeting.

Acting chief legal officer: The council announced the selection of an individual, whose name was not disclosed publicly, to serve as the first chief legal officer for the church. The council was briefed in executive session on the individual, whose name will be announced once contract details are complete. The Rev. Gay Clark Jennings, president of the House of Deputies, explained that the individual will serve full time on a 14-month contract beginning July 1. The move addresses the increasing complexity of legal issues faced by the Episcopal Church, which operates in 17 countries. “Seventeen different countries means 17 different legal systems,” Curry said. “In this contemporary global world, legal realities are much more complex and much more interconnected than they ever have been before.”

Historically Black Colleges and Universities: The council renewed and codified its relationship with HBCUs, applauding the work of a task force launched several years ago at a time of financial crisis for some of the colleges.  With the immediate crises largely past, the council created a committee “that has a longer-term perspective on continuing and furthering and developing and enriching this incredibly important relationship with our brothers and sisters in the HBCU leadership,” said the Rev. Michael Barlowe, secretary of General Convention.

Church planting: The council approved four grants totaling $180,000 for church startups and mission enterprise zones in the dioceses of Fond du Lac, San Diego, Virginia, and West Texas. The Local Mission and Ministry Committee also heard a report from a recent church-planting conference in Scottsdale, Arizona, which attracted 80 people from around the country for training and support.

Gun violence: The council adopted the Sandy Hook Principles, formed after the 2012 massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School, which call for a variety of restrictions and regulations for weapons and ammunition.

Kirk Petersen


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