On September 20, 2017, Hurricane Maria made landfall in Puerto Rico as a deadly Category 5 storm, devastating the island and the people who lived there. Within a matter of hours millions were left without electricity, clean drinking water and other essentials. Puerto Rico was thrown into a humanitarian crisis that has lasted more than seven months.
The incredible and heartbreaking need that still exists on the island inspired a team of 27 Regent students, alumni, donors and staff to embark on an eight-day mission trip during Spring Break 2018 (March 11-18). The university partnered with disaster-relief organization Mercy Chefs, which was founded in 2006 by Gary LeBlanc — the husband of Ann LeBlanc, Regent’s vice president for alumni relations and events.
“It was so unique,” she says of the trip. “Gary and I have been involved in hundreds of outreaches over the years, and the spiritual emphasis during that week was incredible. The Hurricane Maria victims we ministered to were so hungry for us to pray with them. In fact, the experience was so powerful that we’re hoping to plan another trip with students and alumni, to Puerto Rico or another location, in the spring
“It was phenomenal,” Gary adds. “Every day, God just outdid Himself from the day before. It built over the whole week. It was the most amazing mission time.”
As hosts for the Regent trip, the Mercy Chefs team provided meals, coordinated travel and arranged accommodations with help from a network of partner churches on the island. The mission team worked with those partner churches, including Iglesia Nuevo Testamento (INT), to serve the local community by leading worship, participating in food distribution, installing generators, lending a hand in disaster cleanup, and more.
Liz Landon ’17 (CAS), the social media and communications coordinator for the Office of Alumni Relations & Events, kept friends and family updated about the trip through a Facebook blog. “We are thankful to all have a bed and a Puerto Rican church family welcoming us in as their first-time guests in their dorms!” she wrote in her Day 1 post. “We are their ‘first born’ — as they like to call us! God is already gripping our hearts for Puerto Rico, as they mourn the loss of their material belongings, but also as they grieve the loss of family, hope and a normal way of life.”
On Sunday, Day 2, Regent Alumni Officer Josh Liotta ’16 (CAS), preached at INT from Exodus 2 and Matthew 14 — that God has not forgotten His children. “I was challenged on what it truly means to be a pastor,” Liotta says. “The pastor position, at least in the culture I grew up in, has slowly become more of a platform to gain popularity. Pastor Juan (INT’s lead pastor) showed me that it is not the case. Doing the will of God is not just stepping on the stage on a Sunday morning. To be a pastor is an opportunity to get your hands dirty and love people in the community where they are at by simply being present in their world.”
He adds, “One of the most rewarding experiences for me involved the two long and hot days we spent clearing out a house that was hit hard by Maria and painting a wall that desperately needed it in front of the church where we were staying. These projects could easily go unnoticed, but I know that it was a huge burden on each pastor we served.”
After his journey to the island, Luke Isbell, a sophomore in the College of Arts & Sciences (CAS), is challenging people to intercede in prayer and not forget the people of Puerto Rico. “Flying in, blue dots flooded the landscape,” he recalls. “Blue dots that are the tarps on houses that still had no roofs, six months after the hurricane. In the States, we can barely go a couple days without power without being desperate … but hundreds of thousands still live without power in Puerto Rico.”
“Their homes were destroyed, but not just physically,” he continues. “The destruction of their homes you see with your eyes is almost minor compared to the hurt so many people are suffering in their hearts.”
Alumnus Gary Ottman ’05, ’07 (CAS and SBL) and his wife Wendy took part in the mission trip for two reasons: “The first was that these efforts were to help the local church,” he explains. “The local church was helping its members and also the local community it served.”
In addition to traveling to Puerto Rico to give pastors and their congregations a hand up, the Ottman’s trip was also an act of obedience: “We felt God calling us to do what we could to be a part of this act of service, done largely by the students, as a true act of love inJesus’ name.”
One student’s act of service involved giving away her personal Bible, which she had since the age of 12, to a tormented and oppressed hurricane victim in a mountain village. “The Lord led us to houses that were physically dark, without power, and also spiritually dark with fear. We prayed for a lady who was being terrified,” CAS student Cassidy Dooly remembers. “I watched her breathe new breath as we covered her, her family, and their house with the power of Jesus’ name! And then the Lord whispered ‘Give her your Bible! The same hope it brought you; it will bring her.’”
The many wonderful and moving stories told by participants confirm that God prepared the way for each person to serve and grow. The Holy Spirit blessed the smallest details, leading many to say it was the most impactful mission trip they had ever been on.
But it wasn’t all “work” for the mission team. On Day 6 of their weeklong journey the group enjoyed a free day, exploring Old San Juan for some sightseeing, shopping and the beach.
“Even with a little bit of rain we all had a blast wandering around town, buying some gifts, and getting some chill time on the beautiful beaches,” Landon wrote in the team’s blog. “However, I think the most special part of our day off was our time together that night with the entire team.”
Trip participants received thank-you medals from the mayor of Dorado, as other gifts and encouraging words were shared. “I know all of us can say that our love only abounds for one another after this night,” Landon wrote. “And our thankfulness soars when we think about all God has done so far on this trip and is going to do because of it!”
Longtime Regent donor Ellie Dooner agreed to join the team in Puerto Rico because of her love for Regent and the university’s vision. “Because of the hurricane,” she says, “if there is some way I could help the people in Puerto Rico, I wanted to be there for whatever small thing I could do.” She adds that the most rewarding part of the
trip for her was “witnessing the character of the students.”
Mercy Chefs managing chef Lisa Saylor, who fed the students and many in the surrounding community during the trip, said she had a “fun” and “amazing” time working with the mission team: “The Regent students set the bar high for anyone who comes after them. They’ve been such a pleasant and incredible group.”
For Paige Thiboldeaux ’15 (CAS), alumni program and event administrator for the Office of Alumni Relations & Events, the most rewarding experience of the trip was finding family on an island where she didn’t speak the language or know anyone. “The kingdom and family of God transcends language and distance,” she insists. “We were able to pray, worship, laugh, and cry together despite all of our differences. It was a beautiful picture of what I dream heaven is going to be like.”
After she returned to Regent, Impact asked Landon where she saw God move in a powerful way in Puerto Rico. She replied, “Missions trips aren’t supposed to go perfectly. They’re known for making people learn to be flexible. This trip wasn’t the case. Everything we needed was provided for. And not just that, our team worked perfectly together. No cliques, no tension, no complaints — just love. None of this would be possible without the hand of God.”
For more information on how you can support or participate in future mission trips and outreach events hosted by the Office of Alumni Relations & Events, contact us at 800.335.4409 or email@example.com.