By Diana Voth
SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico ‒ “…I had to fight my tears back when we were helping the homeless people with the food,” says Tristan Pries, one of the 2019-2020 MCC mobile meat canner operators. “I learned to appreciate what I have. That I have enough. And I really thank God for the blessings he has given to me and for the talents I have.”
Pries, from Loma Plata, Paraguay, along with fellow canners Gabriel Eisenbeis, from Freeman, South Dakota and Kendall Weaver, from Wooster, Ohio, had the chance to travel to Puerto Rico in September as part of a learning tour for the MCC mobile meat canning staff.
These tours, led by John Hillegass, MCC’s canning and trucking manager, give canners a glimpse into the impact MCC canned meat has in communities around the world. This year’s tour highlighted the significant canned meat shipments to Puerto Rico following Hurricane Maria in September of 2017.
Part of this year’s tour included distributing pre-plated food, complete with MCC canned meat, to people without homes. The distribution, which took place in a local park in San Juan, Puerto Rico, is as an outreach of Iglesia Evangélica Menonita de Summit Hills.
In the pouring rain, those in need of a hot meal gathered under tents to stay dry. They exchanged stories with church volunteers and the canning crew while they waited for food to be ready. Every other month the church goes into the community to reach out to those who are homeless. Sometimes they serve canned meat, cooked Puerto Rican-style, adding white rice, fried plantains and salad. Many church members get involved.
“This is a church that has very few members, but this church does a lot,” notes Carmen B. Vélez, a parishioner at Summit Hills church. “We don’t need to have a lot of members to do the job that has to be done.”
With limited services for those who are homeless in Puerto Rico, many people end up on the streets without a place to live. Some are fighting drug or alcohol abuse or are living with mental illness. Others lost their homes following Hurricane Maria.
“There’s a lot of humble people in need,” says Vélez. “They have no home, they just sleep in the streets, or they lost their homes some way, somehow, and now they prefer to live on the streets. Or they get used to living in the streets and decided to stay there. Also, the problem with drugs makes them stay there. Sometimes the family just throws them out. It’s the same as in the States. But it’s sad to see…”
The church sees the outreach initiative as a way to spread the gospel as well. Rolando Flores, MCC’s Puerto Rico program coordinator and pastor of Summit Hills church, says, “The idea with the canned meat is to provide something else to the church that they [can use to] help the community and then evangelize.” Several Mennonite congregations across the island also do similar homeless outreach programs. Many of them use MCC canned meat.
Vélez reflects, “I don’t like our church to be known that it has money or that it has a lot of help. I like people to know the church by saying, ‘That’s the church that brought me what I needed.’ When people are in need, we have to be there.”
Mennonite Central Committee: Relief, development and peace in the name of Christ