While Hurricane Ian makes headlines this week after striking Cuba and Florida, the people of Puerto Rico are still recovering from Hurricane Fiona, which flooded the island nearly two weeks ago. More than 280,000 Puerto Ricans remain without power, and over 200,000 residents on the island are still without drinking water according to estimates.
After the hurricane, the Puerto Rican government and activists spent eight days petitioning the U.S. Department of Homeland Security before the agency agreed to waive a 1920 law so a ship carrying diesel fuel could deliver to the island. And last week, a U.S. Commission on Civil Rights report found that the federal response to 2017’s Hurricanes Maria and Harvey inequitably served the poor, disabled, and migrants.
The crises that Puerto Ricans are facing are not simply the results of “natural” disasters, according to Carlos A. Rodríguez. As founder and CEO of The Happy Givers, a Puerto Rico-based nonprofit that provides meals, rebuilds homes, and operates a community farm on the island, Rodríguez sees firsthand the harms of U.S. colonialism and climate change. On the island, residents are very clear that they are oppressed by their status as a colony, and when natural disasters hit, the pain is exacerbated.
In all of this, Rodríguez has found faith that he feels is more authentic to following Jesus than he had as an evangelical church planter/pastor. Rodríguez talked with associate news editor Mitchell Atencio about living on Puerto Rico, recovering from the hurricanes, colonialism, capitalist Christianity, and God’s preference for the poor.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Mitchell Atencio, Sojourners: It’s been almost two weeks since Hurricane Fiona landed in Puerto Rico. What are you working on today as part of the recovery process?
Carlos A. Rodríguez: We’re doing what we do whether there’s hurricanes or not: We’re feeding marginalized communities. We have people that we feed hot meals to on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, and we deliver food and other necessities to some members — we call them family — who don’t have cars or mobility. It’s mostly the elderly, though also some adults with different disabilities.
We cook good, healthy meals, trying to use greens and veggies — rice and beans, of course, with some fish — so a nice Puerto Rican meal that brings a lot of dignity with consistency, because help needs to be consistent. I used to do more short-term mission trips — and there is a time and place for them, and we can have conversations about the good, the bad, and the ugly of it — but when you actually move to a community, when you learn the names of the people and when you decide to walk a journey of partnership, it’s a whole different type of engagement.
Because of the storm, and because we have the manpower, the food, and the kitchen, we are delivering hundreds and hundreds of meals to affected communities. So I’m in the car, and I’m driving to deliver 150 lunches to a community up in the mountains.
Why was it important for you to move back to Puerto Rico, how has that affected your faith personally to live and do work on the island?
I thought the dream was to be a pastor. I planted churches in Puerto Rico, in the United States, and I was part of a big church plant in Raleigh, N.C. As the lead pastor of that church plant, I found myself, over those 10 years, really finding all the noes.
We’re all trying to find where we are headed, and what I found in the powerful, big, lots of money, evangelical church was all of my noes: I don’t wanna be a pastor like that, I don’t believe that this is the core focus of the gospel, I don’t wanna spend my time and energy here, I don’t care about the green rooms, I don’t wanna raise my kids in this environment, and so on. And the biggest no was when the Trump era began, and I didn’t want to be associated with how evangelicals talk about immigrants or the way they are repelled by the statement “Black lives matter.”
Raleigh was discovering all my noes, which, in a bizarre way, gets me to discover my yes. In 2017, I had my book coming out. There’s this big book release at a nice bookstore in North Carolina. I’m signing books, and that very night, Hurricane Maria is destroying our island. It was a fork in the road moment. Am I gonna spend my time promoting this book, traveling, doing interviews, etc., or am I gonna actually live what I’ve been preaching for so long?
There was a legitimate impulse — I’ll say it, it was from the Spirit — where all this anger to the American church became an invitation. And my ultimate yes was to follow Jesus to the margins. Not just back to Puerto Rico, but to the poorest communities in Puerto Rico. Not just to the poorest, most marginalized communities, but even within those communities to the marginalized people within the marginalized communities. How can we serve them, love them, and most of all, bring dignity? Dignities are nonnegotiable. Dignity in each home, dignity each meal, dignity in each interaction, and that’s become our passion.
You talked about Trump and Hurricane Maria, and I think people — especially progressives in the faith circles — remember just how callous President Trump’s response was. And this might lead us into conversations about colonialism, but how is the federal response different now? Are there actual differences? Is it just cosmetic?
Cosmetic is a good way to put it. There’s definitely a language that is different, in terms of people wanting to help.
When Maria happened, it was so destructive that people started to respond: conservative churches, progressive churches, federal government, local government. It was shocking. But it quickly turned once Trump came. He’s throwing paper towels at a crowd. He’s saying, “I’m the best thing to happen to Puerto Rico, [the hurricane] wasn’t that bad.” And donations dried up immediately.
Because, to be honest with you, it’s the big conservative churches that send a big bulk of money. They have this sort of mentality of, “Here’s some money, do the work, here’s some teams for short-term missions, we’ll take advantage of the moment, we’ll help, and we’ll evangelize.” And it is conflicting. When people are hungry, when people need a roof, they couldn’t care less why you’re coming — whether it’s to get a check, to get some people saved, or whatever — they just want a roof and some food.
There’s this conversation of short-term missions, who’s funding your work, and I get it. There are some conversations that are really relevant and important on Twitter, but when you’re on the ground and people have lost family members, and they can’t get medication, and they’re still without water and electricity, they couldn’t care less, honestly, about those theological conversations. We just need water. We just need medicine. So, I’m part of those conversations in online spaces, but in the real world, sometimes it’s like … we just feed people.
Can we first do the work that keeps people alive? And then, for sure, we wanna be part of the conversation of the systemic issues of how colonialism has been absolutely terrible for Puerto Rico, how there’s no way forward without solving the problem of being a colony — an actual colony! — without representation in Congress. I know veterans who were in the Army, in wars for America, who live in Puerto Rico and lost everything. We were literally working with a veteran yesterday who lost everything during the hurricane. This is a veteran who can’t vote for the president.
I find myself constantly in that incredible tension. I don’t care about those conversations, and then at the same time, we have to care about these conversations, because that’s how we stop it from happening again. Does that make sense?
Absolutely. I hear you saying that the bigger systemic conversations are great, as long as folks are also there on the ground helping take care of people.
Yeah. And it definitely matters. Because the next hurricane is gonna come, unfortunately. So let’s talk about climate change now. There are really important conversations about climate change happening in spaces that are not really struggling with climate change.
We know that [climate change] is touching everywhere in the world now, as we saw this summer in Europe. But [Puerto Rico is] now at the extreme part. These storms are bigger, stronger, more rain, more unpredictable, and more consistent. Storms are part of the reality of living in the Caribbean — we understand that. But it used to be every 12-15 years. Now it’s every four or five years we’re being hammered by these big storms.
Do [Puerto Ricans] want to be part of the conversation on climate change? Yes. But we need to have water, electricity, and internet to be able to be part of those conversations.
Can you talk about the importance of self-determination in debates about statehood, colonization, and independence?
The desire for independence has grown dramatically in the last five to six years like never before. And the best way for me to personify this conversation — ‘cuz that’s a thing we do in Latin America — is to say the United States has been our stepdad. And, unfortunately, he has been an abusive stepdad.
You can take a step back and say, “At least we had a house, at least we got food every once in a while. And he was sometimes nice to our mom, but he let us know all the time that we weren’t his kids, we know for a fact that we don’t have his same last name, and we know for a fact that we’re not wanted.”
So what we want is to get out of this house. Why would we want to stay with — personified in a different way — a partner who’s been abusive? Yes, in the past maybe they showed love. But if you’ve been abused, that’s just a pattern that’s gonna continue. Why would you stay in that relationship?
I appreciate some of my progressive friends that are like, “Hey, we just want full rights for Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico should be a U.S. state.” But I don’t feel like that’s full rights. That’s attaching myself to something that has proven that it can’t give me full rights.
I see the other marginalized communities, people of color in America, living inside of the States, and I see them being murdered by the police, and I see them without clean water in Jackson, Miss. So being a state has proven not to be the solution for marginalized communities.
But I know people, some on our team and some that we serve, who get $140 Social Security, and they want to be a state because at least they’d get $300 if we become a state. And I don’t blame them for feeling that way, because that $140 is all they get! So I don’t blame them for feeling like statehood would be the solution.
The main thing is: That should be for us to determine. And the reality is that it’s not even our choice! We have voted multiple times for different options; statehood, independence, to stay as we are, but it means nothing when we are truly a colony. The only people that can make us not be a colony anymore is the U.S. Congress, where we have zero representation, where we pay taxes without being represented. So even that conversation goes to the root of the colonial power that the United States has over us.
Historically, Christianity has played a big part in furthering and building that colonialism, but I am curious if you see Christian formation as a tool for helping people fight colonization? Where does faith and decolonization connect?
It’s been four years since I moved back to Puerto Rico and the more I’ve been detoxing from the American evangelical church, the more it sounds so silly to use Jesus as a mascot for the powerful, to use Jesus as a mascot for the empire, to use Jesus as the mascot for the right to defend, for capitalism, excessive wealth, and unnecessary greed. It really is so incredibly offensive. It is such a disgusting misuse of the gospel story.
Jesus could not have been clearer: “The spirit of the sovereign Lord is upon me,” to do what? [In Luke 4, Jesus is telling us] what we get the Holy Spirit for, “to preach good news to the poor.”
Good news to the poor who don’t have a roof is a roof. Good news to the poor who don’t have full rights is full rights. Good news to the poor who are hungry is food. “Preach good news to the poor, set at liberty those who are captives, open the eyes of the blind, liberty for the oppressed, proclaim the favorable year of the Lord,” where? Among the poor, and the oppressed, and the marginalized and those who are blind.
The story of Jesus belongs in spaces like ours. Him being of course, born, raised, died, and resurrected in a space that was a colony of the empire of Rome. This story belongs to us.
I’ve discovered the beauty of God’s preferential option for the poor, and it’s the best thing that God can do for the rich. Preferring the poor, living with the poor, it’s liberation for the rich and the wealthy, and the ones who are prisoners of greed, who are prisoners of racism, xenophobia, and classism.
It’s shocking, really, the misuse of the story of Jesus. To be in the context of power, empire, and extreme wealth, and now to be among people, not just as an organization trying to help others, but by becoming part of this community, hiring local cooks and local people and trying to pay good wages, it’s shocking that I was part of that [misuse], to be honest with you. And to reflect on how much more liberating, rewarding, and godly it feels to be here and to serve people that the American church would’ve told me, “Send them something, but really that’s their problem.”
Ugh, it really disturbs me, to be honest with you. I’m still learning to forgive myself and walk it out. and I’m also trying with all of my heart to really understand the process of liberation from that kind of capitalist gospel. Because I was in it, I was taking a good salary from it, I traveled first class to church conferences because of it, right? I benefited from it. And so I don’t wanna close my heart to the liberation that can come to the evangelical church. I still receive teams from conservative churches that come to do service here. And it is in the context of serving here that we can have those beautiful conversations that hopefully set them free from the lies that they believed about the American Dream and the Americanized church.