Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Leadership Conference, talks about the crisis for Puerto Rican churches
Hispanic leaders in the U.S. say Puerto Rican churches are on the brink of survival, reeling not only from physical damage and destruction in the wake of Hurricane Maria, but now an historic migration that threatens their ability to retain pastors and stay afloat financially.
"It is a crisis moment for the church in Puerto Rico," said Rev. Gabriel Salguero, president of the National Latino Evangelical Coalition.
"It's precarious to say the least," Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Leadership Conference, told CBN News, "we've never been down this road in Puerto Rico."
Hurricane Maria is considered the worst natural disaster on record on the island and hundreds of thousands have fled since it hit last fall. Dr. Yarimar Bonilla, associate professor of Caribbean studies at Rutgers University, says 300,000 have left for Florida alone. The island was already suffering from a historic migratory wave before Maria, caused by the fiscal crisis. That flood of people plus the current wave fleeing after Maria could result in a 25 percent loss of the population by the end of the decade.
The strain of migration, coupled with the damage or destruction of as many as 3,000 churches after Maria, is putting tremendous pressure on pastors in Puerto Rico say Salguero and Rodriguez.
"Those that did survive – they're losing parishioners. They're relocating. So how are they going to survive?" said Salguero.
The migration affects pastors as church members leave and tithes and offerings follow. Pastors are losing income and can't find work outside the church as the Puerto Rican economy struggles with the aftermath of the disaster.
"We have calls from pastors going 'I'm looking to transfer to the States,'" said Rodriguez.
"Can you imagine a church of 100 people losing 15 families?" said Salguero, "you lose 15-20 families at a shot – that can put you on the brink."
Both the National Latino Evangelical Coalition (NALEC) and the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference (NHCLC) are raising funds and working closely with churches on the islands to rebuild and restore.
NALEC's Nehemiah Project is funneling $2M to 10 different communities. The NHCLC is working with Puerto Rican churches via its Puerto Rico 2.0 campaign.
Salguero met with pastors in Trujillo Alto, a suburb of San Juan, last week. "I almost cried at that meeting," he told CBN News. Pastors have been pouring into their communities every day since the hurricane hit, said Salguero, and many have no power or water in their own homes.
"We have to pray for the pastors who are going the extra mile even though they themselves have had no luxury or benefits of comfort. They're my heroes," said Salguero.