As the hurricane approached, we stayed in communication through text. Then I called a few days before to check up on them. My mom was calmed and not too worried. Cellphone signal had came back just the day before I called. They still had no power in the neighborhood, but the water was back. They were prepared; they had water, food, fuel, and an electric plant. My sister – who works for the Department of the Family of the Commonwealth – had visited a shelter and checked up on her clients. They were ready to face the hurricane. The last I heard from my mom was a reply to my text saying: “yes, I am calmed.”
Those are the last few words I have from my family. I have not heard from them yet.
I have read news reports that tell me my neighborhood is fine and that there are no registered deaths in my hometown as of today. I read about the efforts to clear the roads and make sure that people have access to larger towns to get supplies. But there are no ways to get in touch with the outside world. How does the word go out about what’s happening? People from the metro area in San Juan who have family in Adjuntas go down to check up on them and then share what they had seen and heard on social media as the limited access to cellphone coverage allows them to.
But now going back to the question: How have I been able to function?
I have compartmentalized my self. Having to communicate in English helps. It is not my language. It is not my soul. It is not what connects me emotionally to the world. I focused on the tasks. I focused on the routine (of not having a routine), and pay attention only to the work in front of me. I have the news in the background and read the texts and news that I get constantly. But those are in español, those do not belong to the workplace. Those belong to mí.
I have compartmentalized my life in the past few days. Sure, I have shared news with coworkers and friends who ask. I have even shed a tear or two while doing so. I have tried to perform what is asked of me by the US society: calmness, be collected, show little emotion when talking about such things, etc. Like always, I have learned how to perform according to the social rules of the social mores of the society I live in. I have completely disconnected myself from all, creating walls that separate the mí from the me.
When I am home, or when I am speaking with a close friend, or when I am alone in my office and listening to the news, I cry. I let it all go and finally feel mí.
I know that my family is fine. Something within me tells me so. I also know that it will be probably weeks before I hear from them. I, too, am from those areas in the world where nobody cares about you; where the government has nothing to gain but votes every so often, where “charities” have no good faces or locations for photo-ops. I am from the place where the only thing that helps us is ourselves: the community who stands up, puts on their boots, picks up their machetes, brave the remainder rain and winds, and goes out to join one by one as they clear paths and help restore their comunidad. That resiliency is what helps me function. I am a jíbaro, and jíbaros don’t give up.
In Greek mythology there was a bird, the Phoenix, which was always reborn out of its own ashes. This image of rebirth, especially out of difficult circumstances, is not new in religion. Almost every major faith tradition shares this imagery of death and rebirth. However, the story of the Phoenix is particularly appropriate for the story of Ash Wednesday that I would like to share with you today.
Like the Phoenix, there are times when we need to be reborn out of our own ashes. There are situations and events in our lives that could feel like fire burning, destroying, razing with every part of who we are. Nothing can be done… unless you have the drive to be reborn.
The young man entered the sanctuary a few minutes before our Ash Wednesday service began. He came by himself. I was certain I had seen him before. As he found his way into the circle, something told me that this was a special visit for us.
I love planning the Ash Wednesday service, for it gives me the chance to use liturgies that I enjoy and share that with those who come to visit with us. It is also the one worship experience when we get the most visitors. This is always a challenge, as you want to let people know what the ministry is all about but also be true to my liturgical preferences. It is also an important time to acknowledge the truth that both light AND darkness are holy and good.
The young man’s reaction to my mentioning the goodness of darkness was my first clue. He nodded, smiled, and his whole self said that he was feeling comfortable in this space. As the service ended, many of us moved to the foyer to chat, drink some hot beverages, and share stories.
I noticed that the young man stayed looking at our ministry display intently. So I approached him to introduce myself. He immediately opened up. I mentioned that I recognized him, perhaps from last year. He said he had not been here last year, but had been to “other random event here.” Perhaps that’s where I had seen him before.
As he continued to talk, he mentioned that he knew some of the students featured in our display. We chatted about this and how all these other young people of color were involved in one way or another with our ministry. He smiled. He was feeling more and more at home. Then, we talked about the ministry and our lives. He had grown up in church, he said, but things turned bad. He had served in young people’s ministries, had served on the Board of Deacons, had taught Sunday school to children, and had been preaching since he was fifteen. But his was a conservative Baptist church. It is also an African American church, and there were cultural aspects of his culture that were more conservative than what he would like. At some point, he decided to be himself, not to hide anymore. This did not sit well with his congregation. Now, he was church-less. But he had heard about this place, this ministry and safe space for LGBT students. He gave us a chance.
It felt like a rebirth; to find a faith community that is rooted in his faith tradition, one that welcomes him, that offers others like him opportunities for growth and leadership. Like the Phoenix, the ashes brought him back to life.