Stories from the Cities | May 19, 2016

Fellowship across boundaries

Photo by Jennifer Hosler

Last year was a big year for Puerto Rico. No longer a sub-district, the US territory is now just like the States—at least in terms of polity in the Church of the Brethren. Last July Puerto Rico was welcomed as the 24th district in the Church of the Brethren.

Also known as the Caimito church, for the barrio where it is located, Segunda Iglesia Cristo Misionera (Second Missionary Church of Christ) is one of eight churches in the newly established Puerto Rico District. I visited the congregation last November as part of the Stories from the Cities project.

Juan Figueroa and Isabel Martinez

Caimito is on the outskirts of metropolitan San Juan, and Segunda Iglesia Cristo Misionera has been faithfully serving the community for several decades. Pastors Juan Figueroa and Isabel Martinez have committed more than 30 years to service in Christ’s name. The Caimito church is a congregation dedicated to meeting the needs of its neighborhood, welcoming all to its services regardless of who they are or where they are from. Their story with the Brethren is one of being surprised by love, of a joint commitment to service in Christ’s name, and of partnership and fellowship across boundaries.

Caimito and the Church of the Brethren

Figueroa and Martinez have a long history of doing Christ’s mission work. They met as young people who had each ended up in Haiti, separately, as missionaries. After marrying and then returning to their native Puerto Rico, they took up the leadership of Segunda Iglesia Cristo Misionera in Caimito.

Convinced that Christ’s example involved meeting peoples’ spiritual and physical needs, the two pastors founded the Christian Community Center in 1981. Unfortunately, the denomination they were in at the time was not convinced that such service efforts were an important part of the gospel and the relationship was severed, making it an independent church despite retaining its name. Together, they set out in faith to care for a community struggling with poverty.

While the center was founded in 1981, the couple did not encounter the Church of the Brethren until 1989. That year Hurricane Hugo devastated parts of Puerto Rico, including Caimito. Brethren Disaster Service (now Brethren Disaster Ministries) set about rebuilding homes in affected areas and encountered the work of the Christian Community Center.

The church in Caimito quickly realized that it had much in common with these volunteers from the United States. Cliff Kindy led one of the disaster response teams and began a friendship with the pastors. Figueroa recalled looking at the work of the Brethren and the work of the center and saying to Kindy, “Without the name, we are Brethren! We are doing exactly what we love and what you love to do.”

While the service and spirit of the Church of the Brethren resonated with the church in Caimito, they were hesitant at first to get involved with another denomination. It was only after attending Annual Conference and a district conference, and partaking in an anointing service that they felt God calling them to join the Church of the Brethren.

“We thank God because of the blessing that is the Church of the Brethren. We have met a lot of people and they’ve loved us—and we loved them,” Martinez described. This love and welcome was not something that they assumed would happen. Figueroa explained. “We thought that Americans are Americans and we are Puerto Ricans, that we are different . . . but the love which they showed us surprised us.”

Hospitality, welcome, and inviting Figueroa in 1991 to a leadership position on the Church of the Brethren General Board (now called Mission and Ministry Board): these all demonstrated a Brethren commitment to transcending differences in language, ethnicity, culture, and geography. In Figueroa’s words, “Everybody knew that I was black and poor but they welcomed me.”

The Caimito church became the second Puerto Rican Brethren congregation, after Castañer. Through Caimito, Brethren from Puerto Rico and the mainland US expanded cooperation in workcamps, service, and in peacemaking— including protests over the US bombing policies on the small Puerto Rican island of Vieques.

Caimito’s Christian Community Center

“The Hole” is part of the Corea neighborhood in Caimito. The neighborhood descends down from the Brethren church building, a steep, windy, and narrow road lined with houses and banana trees. While some of the houses look well-maintained on the outside, the neighborhood struggles with hunger, drug addiction, and crime.

Christian Community Center in Caimito

The Christian Community Center, coordinated by the church and its members, tries to meet these needs by providing services at no or minimal cost. Each week, community members benefit from the doctor, dentist, social worker, and psychologist who provide services through the center. Monday through Friday, hot lunches are served for any person in need. In addition to mid-week prayer gatherings hosted by the congregation, Monday nights are art nights, where people in the community can paint and learn handcrafts such as making candles and jewelry.