One Great Hour of Sharing

‘We saw you in the people asking for justice’

February 27, 2024 by by Emily Enders Odom

One Great Hour of Sharing gifts help to foster resiliency, self-reliance and hope in hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico

In all her 66 years, Magda Cruz had never witnessed anything like Hurricane María’s power to destroy.

But greater still was the power she saw in the human spirit to prevail — even in the face of the 2017 hurricane’s widespread devastation.

And it was her people’s total commitment to improving their communities’ living and working conditions that inspired Cruz to harness her own power to persist in the fight for social and environmental justice, a cause to which she has long been dedicated.

Because Cruz had seen how Puerto Rico’s public education system had often overlooked or outright failed low-income communities such as hers, she vowed to do something about it. As a lifelong resident of Barrio Obrero San Ciprián in San Juan, Puerto Rico — one of several communities that surround the Martín Peña Canal — Cruz had already spent decades advocating for justice for children with learning differences well before the Category 4 hurricane ravaged the island.

When her ongoing work as the administrator of a local community center, where children could gather after school to access water and electricity, was severely compromised by the hurricane’s catastrophic damage, the efforts of Fideicomiso de la Tierra del Caño Martín Peña provided a necessary lifeline.

Fideicomiso [[fee-day-cō-mē-sō] is a community land trust that manages 200 acres along the canal through collective ownership of its members. It was created to protect the rights of residents like Cruz, many of whom for decades informally built on the land, which was previously owned by the government. The ownership transferred to the land trust in a 2004 act spelling out how the rehabilitation of the canal area would be managed.

In María’s terrifying aftermath, Fideicomiso has come to the aid not only of the community centers, but also to families like Cruz’s, whose homes were built mainly from materials that weren’t designed to withstand natural disasters. Because many residents lost large parts of their roofs as a result of María, they had to either abandon their homes or sleep in unsafe conditions.

One of Fideicomiso’s many ongoing projects, Techos para el Caño, specifically addressed that need by building and installing safe roofs throughout the community, which helped Cruz and her family sleep more securely at night.

“We are living safer since we have a better, hurricane-resistant roof with all the safety measures made by architects and engineers,” she said. “The residents and I are no longer so worried.”

Because the especially dire conditions in Puerto Rico following Hurricane Maria continue to impact the island’s most vulnerable communities and their efforts to achieve resiliency in the face of escalating climate change and an often nonexistent infrastructure, three Presbyterian Mission Agency ministries were moved to join hands and resources in response.

The Presbyterian Hunger Program, the Presbyterian Committee on the Self-Development of People (SDOP) and Presbyterian Disaster Assistance (PDA) — partners in the One Great Hour of Sharing Offering — came together to send a delegation to the archipelago in December 2018.

“Our work with Fideicomiso speaks to the call that we all have to work together as the body of Christ in our ministries,” said the Rev. Edwin González-Castillo, director of Presbyterian Disaster Assistance.

It is on precisely such a universal call that the ecumenical One Great Hour of Sharing Offering was founded in 1949. 

For 75 years, its purpose of helping neighbors in need around the world remains constant, giving the PC(USA) and other Christian denominations a tangible way to share God’s love. Although the Offering may be taken anytime, most congregations receive it on Palm Sunday or Easter Sunday, which this year fall on March 24 and 31 respectively.

“Understanding that communities are not just one dynamic, it’s important for us as ministry partners to have a more wholistic view of the situation happening in the area of Caño Martín Peña, which has been the case here,” he continued. “They are facing issues around health, access to food, immigration problems, and a lack of good jobs or losing their jobs. Their situation allows us to see that this is not just a disaster matter or a self-development matter or a hunger issue, but rather the result of larger root causes. That we could tackle such a wide variety of issues speaks to that call we all have to join together.”

PDA’s partners in the Presbyterian Committee on the Self-Development of People (SDOP) agree.

“Walking alongside communities like Fideicomiso isn’t only about the Matthew 25 movement’s focus on eradicating poverty, but also about long-term community development, which is one of SDOP’s core strategies,” said Margaret Mwale, SDOP’s associate for Community Development and Constituent Relations. “We were in agreement from the beginning that this was a project we could collaboratively fund because it met our very specific mandates.”

Like Mwale and González-Castillo, Mariolga Juliá Pacheco, Fideicomiso’s director of Citizen Engagement and Social Development, also believes in the power of working collectively.  

“As a whole team, we work together,” she said.

Pacheco, a social worker who started at Fideicomiso as an intern 11 years ago while she was in graduate school, said the organization’s primary mission is to help the communities surrounding the Martín Peña Canal to become more resilient.

“Because most of us are social workers specializing in community organizing, our work includes visits from the team to the houses, community centers and different spaces in the community,” said Pacheco. “We have a wide range of social programs and projects that we work on in areas as diverse as environmental affairs, infrastructure, recreational programs for the young, violence prevention, grassroots organizing and support for the elderly. Every project intersects.”

And although Pacheco said that there’s really no typical workday for the members of her team — who tend to start most of their work when members of the community finish theirs — she said they’re used to “putting out a lot of fires.”

“We’re all about building capacity to respond to the community in case of emergency,” she said. “The last grant we received through the Presbyterian Church helped us to construct roofs for 14 families, and soon we’ll start a new project putting in water tanks at the G-8 headquarters and at one of our community centers. Since three schools had to shut down in 2018 because of María, we’ll also be putting solar panels in one of the schools as an alternative energy source for the future.”

G-8 is a collective of eight communities surrounding the canal that, like other projects in the area, started 20 years ago, well before María struck in 2017.

As the work of her team continues to expand, Pacheco is grateful not only for the funding that Fideicomiso receives through the PC(USA) but also for the common goals embraced by both entities, as different as she finds them to be.

“Even though we are a really diverse religious community, both of our organizations believe in the power of the people and the possibility of social, environmental and racial justice,” she said, connecting with several of the foci and intersectional priorities of the Matthew 25 initiative. “We’re really grateful and glad that we have had this relationship with the Presbyterian Church for more than five years. It’s a privilege to join with these programs.”

González-Castillo, too, finds in their partnership a deep connection with the Matthew 25 Scripture.

“In working with Fideicomiso, we are in many ways responding to the question, ‘When did we see you,’” he said. “This project answers the question. We saw you in this community. We saw you in what has been going on for many decades. We saw you in the people asking for justice.”

For Mwale, not only does their collaboration call to mind Matthew 25 but it also embodies the very spirit of One Great Hour of Sharing.

“One Great Hour of Sharing provides a way for us, and for all who give so generously, to connect with communities to lead a dignified life,” she said. “By helping communities to have a more stable source of electricity and to become more water secure — which is a basic human right — what we are really providing through the Offering is a clear message of God’s provision and God’s hope.”

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Each gift to One Great Hour of Sharing helps to improve the lives of people in  challenging situations. The Offering provides us a way to share God’s love with our neighbors in need. In fact, OGHS is the single, largest way that Presbyterians come together every year to work for a better world. Join us!