James King, director of the Office of Social Concerns for the New Jersey Catholic Conference, second from right, has been in Puerto Rico since Oct. 17 to assist Catholic Charities USA. Photos courtesy of James King
James King, director of the Office of Social Concerns for the New Jersey Catholic Conference, second from right, has been in Puerto Rico since Oct. 17 to assist Catholic Charities USA. Photos courtesy of James King

Mary Morrell | Correspondent

“Daily, I am greeted with ‘Gracias!’ Whether it is the residents in the building where I am staying or the barista at the local coffee shop, they go out of their way to thank me and the other members of the Catholic Charities USA team for coming to Puerto Rico to help their island recover.”

The words are James King’s, director of the Office of Social Concerns for the New Jersey Catholic Conference – the public policy arm of the Catholic Bishops of New Jersey – who spent the last two weeks in Puerto Rico in support of Catholic Charities USA’s relief efforts in the wake of Hurricane Maria. King has been corresponding from Puerto Rico with The Monitor since his Oct. 17 arrival.

For the first three days, King worked with the CCUSA team, meeting with Caritas (Catholic Charities) of Puerto Rico, focusing on establishing health clinics at diocesan parishes, disaster case management, receiving and distributing in-kind donations and meeting mental health counseling needs.

For days, the CCUSA team traveled the mountainous region of the island scouting Catholic retreat centers. In the places they traveled, the devastating impact of Hurricane Maria was still visible – downed wires, homes destroyed by landslides and extensive damage to trees and vegetation.  

Wrote King from the storm-ravaged country, “As we continue the work, in sometimes very challenging conditions, the need continues to grow and the demand for CCUSA expertise and assistance increases. Also, communications prove to be a challenge. Cellular service and internet have improved, but are still inconsistent. As you drive the highways, you notice many residents parked on the side of the road attempting to get cell service.”

In the face of such loss and devastation, wrote King, one thing stood out – the hospitality of the Puerto Rican culture. “No matter the personal circumstances, in some cases dire poverty, they live the Christian mandate to welcome the stranger. Upon entering any home, I am immediately offered a drink, a portion of the little food they have and a place to rest.”

King recalled his personal encounters with those affected by the hurricane, the first being with local Caritas Puerto Rico staff. “More than 50 percent of staff lost their homes and personal belongings, but continued to come to work to help, serve and comfort others,” wrote King.

At a home for orphan girls, run by religious sisters, “They greeted us with warm smiles and many ‘Gracias!’ Unless I knew better, I would have never guessed these people just experienced the worst disaster in their island’s history. There were no complaints, no ‘Why did it take you so long to get to us?’ Only, ‘Thank you!’” King recounted.

 On another occasion, King and his team visited a family with an elderly parent whose condition confines her to a hospital bed. “The family was without power and down to their very last cans of food. We started the run late in the day. The drive was about two hours away, which under the current conditions is considered very dangerous. But we knew the run was necessary given the family’s circumstances,” King shared.

“Upon our arrival, the CCUSA team was greeted with smiles and hugs. Although we brought simple items, things that many of us take for granted during our daily lives, the family was so overwhelmed that all they could say was, ‘Thank you for remembering us,’” he recalled.

His time in Puerto Rico has “helped me remember the powerful impact Catholic Charities continues to have in peoples’ lives. Many people, once they hear the CCUSA team is working in Puerto Rico, express joy and hope,” he wrote.

King shared a story of walking into FEMA’s operation center. The location is the epicenter of the U.S. government’s recovery efforts. Representatives from every federal agency, along with countless state agencies and non-governmental organizations from around the country, are at the operations center working around the clock.

“As, I was walking into the building I heard, ‘Yo, Catholic Charites!’ in a distinct New York accent, coming from a black SUV. I approached the SUV with hesitation, worried that I missed a checkpoint or unknowingly broke one of the many security protocols.

“My worry went away as I was greeted with a huge smile and firm handshake by an NYPD officer who identified himself as Ray. Ray was part of the NYPD detail deployed to help with recovery efforts. However this was personal because he had numerous family members located in some of the most affected regions of the island.

“Ray shared with me that many of his family lost their homes and belongings. This disaster impacted him greatly, but seeing my CCUSA shirt brought him great comfort. He ended our conversation by saying, ‘I am only here for two weeks, but I know my family will be OK because Catholic Charities is here.’”

King was happy to share a major development with the announcement that the very first Caritas health clinic will open Nov. 4 in San Juan. The location of the clinic will ensure the most vulnerable in the community will have access to basic health care without having to worry about cost.

Kim Burgo, senior director at Catholic Charities USA for Disaster Operations, summarized the experience she shared with King in a heartfelt email sent Oct. 24 to Patrick Brannigan, NJCC executive director. “The need here in Puerto Rico is great, and the demand for assistance by the Catholic Church increases daily. Our first days last week were spent in meetings obtaining assessments, learning the players, etc. The true work began Saturday as we ventured out of San Juan to explore the rest of the island. The damage is extensive, the losses are incalculable, and the needs of individuals and families – who were already challenged with poverty and are now living in extreme conditions – is tremendous.”