I spent seven days this summer in Lares, Puerto Rico, building an altar for the International Bible Baptist church — a trip sponsored by my church in Warminster, Pennsylvania. We flew out of Philadelphia at 7 a.m. and landed in San Juan at 11:30 that morning. The weather was rainy — dark clouds overhead, a good breeze followed by a torrential tropical downpour.
We drove an hour and half to Lares, a small mountain municipality of central-west Puerto Rico. It’s a poor town. People were selling coconuts, bananas, green melons and boot-leg movies out of their cars along the highway. The sun came out, as we unloaded our gear and were introduced to the realities of life. In Lares you can’t flush the toilet paper you use, and showers involve getting wet, turning off the water, soaping up and rinsing off fast.
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For the next seven days, I lived with sixteen other men in a commercial container — the kind used on boats to ship cargo. The oldest guy was fifty; the youngest was thirteen. Our bunk beds were lined up along a narrow corridor, and the bathrooms were three hundred feet away. This was not the Club Med, but then we were there to help a poor community finish building its church. I had raised $650 from friends, employers and family to be there, and for the next four days we built a wooden altar that was sixty feet long by thirty feet deep, using $4,000 worth of wood contributed by my Pennsylvania church.
It wasn’t all work. We went to a beach with waves that were fifteen or twenty feet high and sand so soft that you sank into it up to your knees. We got creamed in Basketball by a group of kids from a local foster home. They were all a foot shorter than I am but fast and deadly accurate shooters. We took a tour of caverns, where we were warned not to touch the trickling water, because it contained harmful bacteria.
We ducked the bats flying overhead and side-stepped the guano they deposit—food for the spiders, snakes and rodents that cohabit the caves. We experienced the thrills of driving on narrow winding roads with cars coming toward us so fast and close that they seemed to be playing chicken. We tasted the region’s rice and beans along with its incredibly strong coffee. On our last day we turned tourist and walked through the cobblestone streets of old San Juan onto the walls of its waterfront fort, where we encountered a two-foot-long iguana.
I had no idea how much I took for granted in the states until I visited Puerto Rico. I have spent the last seven years as a foster child in a group home, but I have a t.v., a washer and dryer, easily accessible hot water, a roof that doesn’t leak, a toilet that flushes paper and cheap electricity (it’s four times more expensive in Puerto Rico than it is in Warminster). A real-life experience in Lares made me appreciate what I have far more than a PBS documentary. My trip was not the kind of vacation you take, if you are looking for a cruise ship, and I have to admit that I was glad to get back to the land of hot showers. But because I went to Puerto Rico, a group of people, who live in a level of poverty I have never known, now have a church where they can find the spiritual peace often denied them by the world in which they live.
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