Toolkit for Unpacking Puerto Rico

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Photo by Kathleen Barry, UMNS

“For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.”

Religion & Race joins people around the world in witness and concern as the weeks pass since Puerto Rico was subjected to a 30-hour direct hit from Hurricane Maria on September 20th.

We see the courage of the Puerto Rican people, banding together to survive. As the death toll slowly climbs, we anguish with family and friends living on the mainland who can’t help but compare Maria to Harvey and Irma. We listen as the US government works to free itself from political distraction and speed life-giving support to its citizens in the US territory.

Staff, board, and allies of Religion & Race who walk with us in the work of intercultural competency, institutional equity, and vital conversation regard the crisis in Puerto Rico through these methodological lenses and wonder about the ways in which race, class, and culture might be affecting the conversation and response.

In the US, we have inherited a long and current history of wondering about the basic humanity of people of color. The shame of 3/5 of a person is our inheritance. Let us pray for our own souls’ sake that we wonder no longer and that we live into our civic and biblical call to feed, clothe, and care for one another.

We must think critically about the unfolding tragedy in Puerto Rico and examine systems of injustice that keep so many of our brothers and sisters in a place of need and suffering, before and after the storms of life. While we may claim systemic injustice as no fault of our own, we are part of the family of God, brothers and sisters of Jesus united in the Holy Spirit. Unless we come together in authentic community and have the vital–sometimes difficult–conversations essential to building the beloved community, we fall short of the authentic Christian lives to which we are called.

Therefore, we call upon US citizens of faith and goodwill to hold our government accountable for the immediate escalation of aid to rebuild the infrastructure and protect our fellow citizens of Puerto Rico.

We encourage people to examine their own understanding of Puerto Rican culture. Before engaging in rhetoric or actions that stereotypes, blames, and alienates a whole group of people, it would do government officials and all leaders well to understand the people of whom we speak and who we serve. Intercultural competency helps us move beyond sympathy to empathy and toward understanding the responsibility we have to work toward the well-being of all.

Religion and Race is offering resources to help leaders hold vital conversations and take culturally competent action in the movement to end racism and cultural insensitivity. Prayers are not enough but it is our hope that prayerful reflection will lead to powerful actions that transform the world.


Please use the following resources to take you deeper in your understanding and conversations regarding Puerto Rico.


Vital conversations help us to dig deeper than everyday talk, superficial debates between our already standing beliefs, or reinforcements of stereotypes, prejudices and privileges. Puerto Rico, its people, and its status as a United States commonwealth, are deeply misunderstood by many. One avenue toward transformation is engaging in conversations that are vital – those based in real facts, lived testimonies, and resurrection hope.

We have selected three videos from our Vital Conversations video series with nuanced reflections questions to further your learning:


“Culture is the everyday stuff of life that feels normal and natural, to a group of people, who share time, spaces, and meaning” (paraphrase from Dr. Robin DiAngelo’s definition of culture). Intercultural Competency equips us to remember that our culture is not the only culture out there, that someone else’s culture is equally “normal and natural” to them, and that building relationships across cultures takes equal part learning and commitment. Just “knowing about” another culture is not the same thing as responsibly using another cultural lens to understand and respect another person, group, or place. In these post-Hurricane Maria days, understanding the cultural distinctiveness of Puerto Rico and the people of its heritage is as critical to analyzing disaster response as it is to praying for disaster relief.

10 Honorable Ways to Learn about Another Culture

Reflection Questions:

  1. Think of (or Google) articles, social media posts, or news stories about Hurricane Maria and its impact on Puerto Rico. Focus on one or two stories and discuss the following: [1] Was the piece written by someone of Puerto Rican decent; [2] How prominently did quotes from Puerto Ricans (in Puerto Rico and outside of the commonwealth) appear in the piece and drive the narrative; [3] If in a group, share your findings with others about different pieces. Name the similarities and differences found between pieces written or narratives driven by people of Puerto Rican heritage and those that weren’t. (If you find you “can’t tell” which pieces fall into which category – discuss why you think that is.)
  2. Get together with a group of people at your church interested in doing something to help Puerto Rico survive and recover after the devastating effects of Hurricane Maria. Create a list of what your church can do within the next 24 hours, within the next week, within the next month, and within the next quarter (3 months). Consider and discuss the following:
    • [1]How did you determine each action item on the list was beneficial to Puerto Rico and its people? [2] If your determination was based on another agency (i.e., UMCOR – United Methodist Committee on Relief; VIM – Volunteers in Mission; Red Cross; etc.), how did they determine their action items were beneficial to Puerto Rico and its people? [3] Notice who is in your group. Are there Puerto Ricans present? Reflect and discuss. [4] Based on the GCORR resource, “10 Honorable Ways to Learn about Another Culture,” discuss how, if at all, your group can engage in one or more of these actions and edit your action item list. [5] Create specific and measurable ways to complete your action item list.

Bearing Witness in the 21st Century: When Video Evidence is Not Enough


Cultural incompetency and racism function on a wide spectrum ranging from individual biases and stereotypes, to interpersonal interactions, to organizational policies, to infrastructure (government, education, laws, justice) ethos. Institutional equity focuses on areas where “what we think” becomes what we do in the workplace and the common spaces, the denominational structures and the public square. Post-hurricane Maria, institutional equity interrogates the systems, laws, policies, and procedures that discriminate between victims in Texas and victims in Puerto Rico, that distinguish rights for U.S. citizens based on birthplace in the 50 states or territories and commonwealths, and that deny, allow, or protect inequity of access, opportunity, or empathy based on race, ethnicity, or birthplace.

Equity vs Equality: Understanding the Differences

Reflection Questions:

  1. Equality says that everyone already begins with equal access to resources, and an equal chance to survive and thrive. Consider the responses to Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria and access to disaster relief for Texas, Florida, and Puerto Rico. Discuss and reflect on the similarities and differences.
  2. What is “The Jones Act?” How did this create inequity for Puerto Rico and its people before Hurricane Maria hit? How does it affect disaster response and relief efforts now?
    1. “Is this 1917 law suffocating Puerto Rico’s economy?” (this article was written August 13, 2017 – before Hurricane Maria hit)
    2. The Jones Act, explained (and what waiving it means for Puerto Rico.”

VOX: What every American needs to know about Puerto Rico’s hurricane disaster

Reflection Questions:

  1. Consider each of the 9 “need to knows” from the article. (If you are doing this with a group, you can assign each small group 1 “need to know” from article.) Name how, if at all, inequity is functioning in policies, structures, procedures, or laws in each.
  2. Consider how your life and the lives of your loved ones would change if you were subject to the same inequities?
  3. Why do you think it is possible that these inequities have remained?
  4. Which inequities do you think need to be addressed first? Why?
  5. What can you/your church do to address, interrupt, or dismantle any of the inequities listed from your answer to #1 above? Use the chart below to create an action plan.
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