– by Anna Irwin, LHF staff writer
“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” – Matthew 11:28-30 NIV
For many Puerto Ricans, the burdens on their shoulders feel heavier every day. In 2017, Hurricane Maria decimated the island. Just as the Puerto Rican people worked to pull their homes and lives back together, earthquakes beset the island in late 2019 and early 2020. Covid-19 added another weight, and this year, Hurricane Fiona left homes underwater and destroyed roads and bridges.
Deaconess Christel Neuendorf and her husband, Rev. James Neuendorf (pictured at left), have been LCMS missionaries in Puerto Rico since 2019, and from the moment they arrived, they’ve been working to share the Gospel message with people living in Ponce and in Mayagüez, two large cities in Puerto Rico. The call is simple: Come, receive the peace that comes from Christ, and let us adore Him!
“As Lutherans, we don’t shy away from suffering,” said Deaconess Neuendorf. “We have the theology for it! There’s a lot of prosperity gospel here in Puerto Rico: ‘Do this and be good and God will bless you with this and that,’ and it’s like ‘Okay, so why is my life so hard right now? I’m doing all my works.’ [Our Lutheran teachings] are there when everyone else isn’t, and we can share the Word of God with them during the dark times – and there have been a lot of them!”
Nurturing the community of a church family is particularly important to the Neuendorfs. “Loneliness is a real challenge here, and so people are aware of churches!” she said. “At each of our congregations, we have one day a week where we have a meal, games, crafts, Bible study, etc. A lot of our ministry is reaching out to people and making them feel welcome, making them feel like they’re part of a family. A lot of people don’t have that, or they’re estranged from theirs.”
This year, the Neuendorfs are sharing an even bigger Christmas season with their church family, thanks to the publication of the Spanish Hymnal! (Although Puerto Rico is a U.S. territory, the main language spoken by the people is Spanish.)
“Christmas is a big, big deal here in Puerto Rico,” explained Deaconess Neuendorf. “The big[gest] thing is Three Kings Day, or Epiphany. Supposedly, the three kings came from right outside of Ponce! Kids sometimes get gifts on Christmas Eve or Day, but every kid gets a gift on Epiphany.”
There are a lot of cultural traditions to go with the Christmas season in Puerto Rico, including a custom called parranda, a kind of caroling where people go from house to house with musical instruments, receiving food from the homeowners and singing Christmas songs. “Everyone eats a big pig for Christmas and Epiphany, they’ll roast it over an open pit,” she continued. “The traditions here are culturally strong, so developing the church as part of the family tradition has been a unique challenge, and it’s coming along! Adding church is a little different, but people are making it a priority.”
Rev. and Deaconess Neuendorf have embraced the traditions and woven them into their mission outreach to the community! “It’s a fun time of year, but it’s also unique to the church,” shared Deaconess Neuendorf. “As a church, we have our special services. Last year we gave everyone advent wreaths – one of our big things has been teaching advent, the anticipation of Christ’s birth. We have a big Christmas meal too!”
Most recently, the church in Mayagüez has begun using the new Spanish Hymnal to do community hymn sings. “In Mayagüez, most people that come to the hymn sings aren’t members, but they’re long-time visitors who are right on the edge of being confirmed. One woman has a playlist of her favorite songs, and every time she hears a new hymn she adds it to her list!”
Deaconess Neuendorf continued, “For all the church members here, the hymnal is a new thing. The liturgy is the same, but it’s not on a laminated sheet anymore, it’s in a book! We’re blessed to have [the hymnals]. A lot of the hymns are actually new to us! There are a few Christmas songs here that people love, but now we can expand on that!
“A big thanks to LHF. Your office is always like, ‘What do you need? No problem, we’ll send it to you!’ It’s such a great blessing to get the materials into people’s hands!”