This is the story of three Marias. The first--Mother Mary--birthed, raised, and beheld the death of her beloved child Jesus of Nazareth. The second--Hurricane Maria--struck the shores of Puerto Rico with terrible fury on September 20, 2017. The third—the Rev. Maria Teresa Jones, Puerto Rican by birth--lives in exile in North Carolina, where she serves as a chaplain at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center. The Rev. Maria was born in San Juan with the rhythmic sounds of Taino drums and Afro-Caribbean chants running through her veins, the scent of sea foam breezing over her like a baptism, and the undulating crash of ocean waves in her ears. From a young age, her posture in the world was one of pride, descending directly from her Mestizo (blended) identity. “As descendants of Taino Indians, Puerto Ricans embody the spirit of hospitality and community,” she notes. This spirit informs her work as a chaplain who pulls up a chair to grief and loss, fear and love, birth and death. When she is not preaching, teaching, or offering expert bilingual care to patients, the Rev. Maria can be found dancing. In particular: the salsa, every Saturday morning, as she mops her floors in ballroom high heel dance shoes to the crooning voices of Celia Cruz and Tito Puente. “Salsa,” the Rev. Maria says, “is the rhythmic beat of my heart. Like a good therapist, it soothes and heals me from day to day stress; it is my very own antidepressant.”
Here on the United States mainland, she confesses she is often treated as a foreigner, despite the fact that she is a veteran of the US Army. She longs to return to Puerto Rico where she is fully loved, accepted, and free from the daily labor of “navigating who I am, what I am, and where I come from.” In truth, the relationship between the United States and Puerto Rico is so complex that many Americans fail to grasp it. Puerto Ricans are a people twice colonized; first by Spain, where they were given both voice and vote under the monarchy; second by the United States, who “purchased the island and its people as war booty from Spain” in 1898. Puerto Ricans were subsequently accorded U.S. citizenship; the fact that they had no say in the matter is much glossed over. Still lacking the right to vote for the president and voting representation in Congress, Puerto Ricans function more as subjects than citizens.
This last point, it seems, did not go unnoted by President Trump or Congress when Hurricane Maria battered the island earlier this year. On the heels of two other hurricanes on the U.S. mainland, Puerto Rico’s plight provoked presidential scorn and apathy rather than the compassion and rapid response received in Texas and Florida. When Hurricane Maria pummeled the island three months ago, she ushered in the largest blackout in U.S. history. By mid-October, the island teetered on humanitarian crisis as entire communities still had not been reached by any government help, federal or local. 60% of Puerto Ricans were still without electricity two months after the hurricane. One community organizer noted he does not expect restoration of power until sometime in 2018. Hot meals are cooked over Bunsen burners, evening tasks completed by candlelight, and in the evening the hum of electric generators blankets the island. Simple tasks such as getting groceries, gas, or cash require a full day of waiting in lines that extend around city blocks.
Without electricity, the chronically ill are not receiving the medical treatments they need, particularly in rural areas. While the official death toll climbed to 64, 911 bodies have been cremated since Maria, and many families still have loved ones who remain missing. FEMA has failed the people of Puerto Rico, whose taxes help pay for the agency. “It’s not a charity,” one organizer noted. Not only are most of the FEMA applications for help found online (a problem for those without internet access), but they have subcontracted out work to companies unable or unwilling to administer appropriate follow up. When delayed supplies finally reached the island, FEMA refused to release them to the truck drivers gathered to carry them to the farthest reaches of the countryside. Instead, they asked drivers to write down their names and cell phone numbers saying, “We’ll call you.” Unfortunately, cell phone service was not working in many parts of the island. The supplies remained where they had landed.
In case FEMA’s incompetence did not offer ample insult to the people of Puerto Rico, the recently passed GOP tax bill promises to deliver what the Governor calls “a crippling blow” to an economy already on the verge of collapse. Companies based on the island are treated like those located in other Caribbean tax havens, rather than on American soil, so the new 12.5% tax “on profits derived from intellectual property held by foreign companies” will slam Puerto Rico’s manufacturing sector, resulting in the potential loss of hundreds of thousands of jobs, according to the Washington Post.
The Rev. Maria did not hear from her family for three agonizing weeks. She now touches base weekly with her aging mother and her tenacious brother who managed to build his own generator in the can-do spirit of the island. Her entire family decided to stay in Puerto Rico to rebuild. Maria reports, “They are working hard at doing so, and caring for friends, neighbors, and their communities.” Organizers traveling to various ends of the island affirm that Puerto Ricans understand they cannot rely on FEMA, or even local government, to save them. They rely, instead, on each other.
In some of the hardest hit areas, neighbors are feeding one another with large delicious meals. The strategy is called Comedores Sociales, which means "social kitchen." The entire community participates, not as charity, but togetherness and mutual aid. One BBC journalist described a meal she witnessed, made in an abandoned building, of yellow rice, pork, and beans, arroz con gandules. As people waited in line, street musicians played music, there were coloring books for kids. Never, she said, have I seen people in the wake of disaster feed each other "with such humanity, with such acknowledgement of beauty."
Still, many Puerto Ricans have migrated to the mainland in a “forced exodus” of 130,000 islanders. They do not want to leave their beloved motherland, but they cannot remain for the time being. One father-turned-community-organizer teared up during an interview as his tiny son climbed onto his lap. “I have to be the best father in the worst of circumstances.” He takes his son with him as he travels out to rural communities to help his fellow Puerto Ricans. Another organizer adds, “We’re not just pawns, toys, or consumers. We’re people. We’re humans. And we’re dealing with a lot of suffering.”
On the U.S. mainland, as Christmas fast approaches, we trim trees, bake cookies, wrap gifts, light candles against the long nights, and ready our hearts to receive Emmanuel; God-with-us, in a baby named Jesus, born to Mother Mary. God, the Creator of us all, whose divine spark animates every living heart, coming to us again. Moving into the neighborhood: as a refugee, an immigrant, a subject of imperial scorn, a stranger. God made flesh.
This much we know. Mother Mary gave birth in the grit and grime of the real world, against the backdrop of an oppressive empire. She gave birth bereft of home—on the road, where she relied on the hospitality of strangers, even animals. She brought a child into a world that refused to believe her truthful testimony and, one day, would execute her child for loving the least of these in ways that transgressed social norms and threatened the religious and political powers of his day.
Today, mothers are giving birth—just like Mary—far from the comforts of home. In refugee camps on the run from war and genocide. In prison with their arms shackled. By candlelight in the wake of hurricanes. In the presence of abusers, women continue to give birth attended by the same holy mingling of grace, strength, pain, and joy that Mary knew.
For American Christians, the questions remain: How do we follow in the ways of Jesus in a time when Christianity has been co-opted by the wealthy, the powerful, and the militarized? Have we forgotten, as the Rev. Maria so eloquently states, that we too are strangers? Do we worship materialism and forget the one born to displaced parents who would become a refugee on the run from a violent government? In what people and places does God come to us again as this shadowed year draws to a close? If we forget the Rohingya, Syrian refugees, those enslaved in Libya—if we forget Puerto Rico, then we forget also the presence of Christ among the suffering of our world.
And yet it is not all suffering. Dance, music, and beauty also constitute the holy alchemy by which the disinherited make a mockery of their persecution. The Rev. Maria still pulls on her high heels to dance her healing through salsa each Saturday. Of her holy work to welcome the stories of strangers and attend their spiritual wellbeing in times of medical crisis, she notes that the paradox of her vocation is that it is “the hardest thing I ever had to do and the most rewarding. You see, care and healing comes in reciprocity.” Puerto Ricans live it every day.
This Christmas, may we keep moving forward with hope lit by the flickering candle lights of small acts of beauty, quiet miracles arriving in out of the way places, the birth of babies who bring joy, even in refugee camps, the warm glow of love that is our birthright. May we be sufficiently troubled by the injustices of this world. May we be sufficiently comforted by the God who always finds a way to incarnate love into human living and the particularities of our lives. May God come to us again in a way that pulls the powerful from their thrones and lifts up the lowly. May we strain with eager anticipation toward the acceptable year of our God, the year of God's break-through, when Jesus’ gospel of good news for the poor, release to the captive, healing for the blind, and liberation for the oppressed is whispered the world over.