SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO — Big cars and sport utility vehicles — some still bearing their factory shine — clog the highways of this Caribbean capital. Gas is expensive here, but it’s hard for a mainlander to grasp since the prices are in liters, not gallons.
Jim Gullette navigates the crowded streets in a large church van, shuttling Christians attending the Caribbean Lectureship from their hotels to the shopping mall, complete with J.C. Penney. The stores look just like their U.S. counterparts — except that signs pointing customers to the cash registers are in Spanish.
The rectangle-shaped island, about 1,000 miles southeast of Florida, is a self-governing U.S. territory.
The arrangement gives the island’s 3.9 million inhabitants special status. They’re U.S. citizens, but they don’t pay federal income tax and can’t vote for president. That status creates unique opportunities and challenges for Churches of Christ, said Gullette, who has served as a missionary in Puerto Rico for 10 years and works with a 70-member church in Arecibo, 60 miles west of San Juan.
Though the average income in Puerto Rico is lower than most of the U.S., the island enjoys one of the highest standards of living in the Caribbean.
Gullette and several Puerto Rican church members make regular mission trips to the island’s Spanish-speaking neighbor, the Dominican Republic. The people there are poorer, but churches are growing rapidly.
“The challenge here is that it’s an American territory,” Gullette said. “The more prosperity, the more difficult to reach people. Still, we continue to preach the gospel.” U.S., LATIN AMERICA OR BOTH?
Like a proud father, Jose “Cheo” Colon shows off a poster bearing the smiling faces of his congregation’s “coro de ninos,” or children’s chorus. The 13-member chorus sings at events across the island, he said.
Colon wasn’t much older than most of the singers when he preached his first sermon. An evangelist from the mainland had come to Puerto Rico to train young men in a young Church of Christ, which started in 1952 when a Pentecostal minister was converted through a Bible correspondence course. Colon was 12 when the evangelist arrived. At age 14, he was behind the pulpit. Now Colon is minister for a 40-member church in the San Juan suburb of Los Angeles.
Over the years, missionaries from the mainland have helped Puerto Rican churches grow, Colon said.
Dewayne Shappley arrived in Puerto Rico 41 years ago. Supported by the Alamo, Tenn., church, Shappley and his wife, Rita, serve a 120-member congregation in Bayamon — the largest Church of Christ on the island.
Shappley’s ministry has produced tens of thousands of tracts, books and Bible lessons for Spanish speakers around the globe. An increasing number are reading the gospel message at the ministry’s Web site, www.editoriallapaz.org
“They come from all over the Spanish-speaking world,” Shappley said, “and conversions in several different countries have been reported as coming through the materials.”
Though several Puerto Rican churches participate in missions outside their island, many members lack a sense of connection to the church as a whole, said Carlos Quinones, minister for the 70-member Caguas church, 20 miles south of San Juan. The island has more than 70 towns, but only about 25 Churches of Christ with a combined membership of about 1,000.
“People here don’t realize how big the church is,” Quinones said. As Americans, “they know they belong to a huge nation,” he said, but it’s easy for them to feel disconnected from their fellow U.S. churches. NO PASSPORT REQUIRED
Thanks to recent travel regulations, Puerto Rico and the neighboring U.S. Virgin Islands are about the only Caribbean locales Americans can enter without a passport. As a result, the islanders expect more tourists.
Many English speakers move to Puerto Rico from other parts of the Caribbean to work in tourism-related businesses. Leroy Smith came here 30 years ago from nearby St. Thomas to play steel drums in hotel lobbies and at tourist events. A friend invited him to church, and a few months later, his heart pounding in his chest, he decided to be baptized.
For 20 years, Smith has worked with the Park Gardens church in San Juan, where he serves as evangelist and minister for the church’s English service. About 35 English speakers attend. The church also has about 45 members in its Spanish-language service, said member Vanessa Jarvis, who grew up in the church.
Jarvis and Smith, like most of the island’s English speakers, are fluent in Spanish and flow seamlessly between the two languages as they chat with fellow church members.
“It’s very difficult for an American to come here and evangelize without knowing the culture of the Spanish people,” Smith said.
The appeal of charismatic religious groups is another challenge, Smith said. Driving through downtown San Juan recently, he pointed to the headquarters of the Mita movement. Mita, whose founder claimed to be the earthly manifestation of the Holy Spirit, owns several city blocks of buildings and small businesses.
Despite the challenges, God is transforming lives in Puerto Rico, said Avonelle Roland, who moved to the San Juan area 11 years ago from the island of St. Kitts.
On Christmas Eve 2000, she heard a minister speak during a gospel campaign. On the way home, she stopped at a Burger King for a snack. While waiting in line, she felt a change in her heart, she said.
She headed back to the site of the meeting, gathered the church members she could find and was baptized about 10 p.m. She’s been a member of the Park Gardens church ever since.
“Thanks be to God for loving me so much,” she said.