SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico – Most people know that Hurricane Maria damaged and destroyed much of Puerto Rico when the Category 4 storm hammered the island last September. But what many don't know is that the storm also paved the way for a spirit of revival.
The story of the isolated Puerto Rican mountain village of Comerio tells it all. George Santiago grew up here but left for more opportunity in the United States. Last summer, however, God called him back to start a church in his hometown.
At first, nothing seemed to be happening.
"When we came here in July of 2017 we didn't have a chance to open the Bible and preach the Bible to people," he told CBN News.
But just two months later, Hurricane Maria turned the pretty mountain stream in Comerio into a raging river and the people were paralyzed. Maria left the town in shambles and destroyed its access to food and water.
"I couldn't believe what I was seeing. It was destruction everywhere," recalled Santiago.
He quickly sprang into action, using his Southern Baptist connections to find resources like food, water, and even washing machines so people could wash their clothes. These acts of service, he says, became his way back into the community and his path to sharing the Gospel.
"People were asking all the time, 'Why are you guys doing this?' " he said.
Evidence of God's Master Plan
Since the storm, Santiago says at least 50 people have come to Christ in Comerio, and Santiago has started what he calls a "baby church" for the new believers.
It's all evidence, he believes, of God's master plan at work. "He placed us in Puerto Rico at the right moment, the perfect moment for one church to give birth," he said.
And Santiago is not alone. Carlos Rodriguez oversees church planting on the island for the Southern Baptists' North American Mission Board and says Maria paved the way for enormous spiritual growth.
"If you ask any pastor across Puerto Rico, across denominations, no one will say that Hurricane Maria was a bad thing. In the human perspective – of course," he said. "We still have a lot of people without power but in the spiritual perspective, no, it was a blessing."
Southern Baptists see a unique opportunity right now. They're planting three new churches this year, ahead of schedule, and they're pouring hundreds of volunteers and resources into the territory in the hopes of winning more for Christ. Since Maria hit, they've distributed more than 762,000 meals and worked on hundreds of homes.
Pastor Farlin Reynosa is working with mission teams from the states and watching people come to the Lord as a result.
"This is actually bringing a revival to the island just by helping people get a tent or do the cutting of trees, just stuff that it's simple probably for many of us but for them, it means a lot," he told CBN News.
In San Juan, Maria damaged Pastor Gabriel Prada's church but that didn't stop church members from distributing food and water right after the storm.
Seeing the Blessings in Loss
Even six months later, Prada sees Maria as a huge opportunity for the church, but he's also up against some tough realities as are other churches. Tens of thousands of Puerto Ricans have left the island since Maria. Prada's church has lost people and offerings.
But Rodriguez says that believers must see even the migration as an opportunity for the Gospel. He's telling churches with members that leave for the states to send them as missionaries.
"Don't say that it's a loss. It's a gain always," he said. "If the Lord is moving you to the US, to the mainland, any state – you have to be connected to the church."
Churches are also acutely aware of severe mental health needs right now. Surviving the storm, and its aftermath has led to widespread depression for many and a spike in suicide attempts.
But in the midst of such suffering believers are seeing a hunger for the Gospel and an acknowledgment that business as usual just won't work. Reynosa believes, in fact, that the Lord is positioning Puerto Rico for greater influence.
"I think it's going to be an exponential explosion of new churches and many people following God's calling to pastor churches, to be that evangelist God wants them to be," Reynosa explained.
"I think Puerto Rico is going to be a main focal point in the Caribbean to keep sharing the Gospel even more," he said.
Last month, Pastor George baptized 10 new believers. He keeps a display of locks, with the keys thrown away, as a reminder of new believers that cannot be separated from the love of Christ.
"We are experiencing a revival, literally," he said, "We see people desiring, a hunger and a hope."