Wednesday, February 8, 2023

Puerto Rico Churches Reinvent Themselves

By on April 18, 2019

Struggling with Economic Recession, Nonprofit Religious Organizations Expand Money-Making Services to Sustain Operations

Editor’s note: The following was first published in the April 18-24, 2019, issue of Caribbean Business.

As has been the case with the government of Puerto Rico, the island’s churches have been struggling financially to make ends meet for more than a decade because of the economic recession, a stagnant economy and repercussions from a government in bankruptcy.

Some churches, however, have been hit by financial woes more than others. Nonetheless, those churches that are more economically stable have had to reinvent themselves to keep operations running.

Second Union Church

The Second Union Church in Guaynabo is one example. The interdenominational, English-speaking church has seen a decline in its congregation’s attendance over the past 10 years. This change has mostly been because there are fewer English-speaking churchgoers on the island, especially after the 2017 hurricanes.

Still, the church has found ways to continue to function by renting its space to the Spanish-speaking Iglesia Mar Azul on Sunday nights, celebrating weddings and holding its annual Christmas Bazaar, just to name a few of the strategies being adapted to continue to successfully operate.

The Rev. Robert Zoba said the past few years have been tough for his church.

“Yes, we are struggling, especially those of us who are English-speaking congregations…. It’s a struggle…we have always had Weight Watchers meetings, we have a violin class and that sort of thing,” Zoba said.

However, Zoba explained that nonprofit churches must keep in mind that “you can’t venture too far from your mission.” The Second Union Church is a nonprofit.

“So, the kind of things we do are small scale, and I think that’s where a lot of churches may get into trouble because you kind of lose your mission and then you may lose your tax status also,” Zoba noted.

“But one thing that we’ve done, which has been a huge plus and fits completely in our mission, is we rent the church out to a Spanish-speaking church Sunday night, and they are a huge success. They pack out here, and it provides us with some income, and it’s part of our mission…. So, it is the best of both worlds. They are an extension of our ministry, and we have a great relationship with them; they are Iglesia Mar Azul, so that’s been a win-win for both us.”

He said Iglesia Mar Azul has been using the Second Union Church’s space in Guaynabo for some three or four years.

“They have actually outgrown us; they are looking to get their own building, [and] it has been wonderful for us and for them, I think. That is one way we’ve been able to deal with budget deficits,” he added.

The Second Union Church has continued holding its yearly Christmas Bazaar—long before the fiscal crisis—Zoba said, adding that it has been helpful, but the money raised at this event is given to the church’s women’s ministry.

“[T]hat money [raised at the Christmas Bazaar] goes right out the door. It’s all outreach money, and we help a whole bunch of charities, so that’s not part of our budget,” Zoba said. “Ninety-five percent of that goes to organizations we support here on the island, such as shelters for women, abused women, orphanages, the homeless, that kind of thing. So, that’s not a moneymaker for us….”

Zoba explained that the church is trying to hold more weddings, and recently renovated its fellowship program to make that a “little more attractive for the wedding and the reception, but we just finished that project.”

He reiterated that these other approaches are helping the church, but again said, “You are in danger of losing your mission and tax status.”

“I would say that raising anything more than 20 percent or 30 percent of your budget is going to start raising flags with the Internal Revenue Service [IRS],” the pastor said. “We have a budget of about a quarter of a million [dollars].”

The violin class offered at the church, where a room is rented out, does not make a lot of money for the church either, Zoba noted.

“One thing that happens is that you get people in the building,” he added. “But if you get people in the building to come into the church and they see the bulletin board and see what we do…. If you get people indirectly that way, that’s one way to boost your attendance. Our problem has been that as an English-speaking church, our main advertising was done with Radio WOSO [which went off the air in 2014]…but we really have a hard time, at this point, getting the word out about who we are.”

Zoba explained that a lot of the multinational companies on the island are hiring locals and are not bringing families down [from the States] as they used to, so a lot of people have left the island, which “has hurt us because the English-speaking church members keep diminishing.”

“It has been a battle of the churches for most of us,” he noted. “So, it is tough, it is a tough environment for everybody. We have about 130 people attending church on a Sunday, versus 10 years ago when about 250 or 260 people would attend.”

The Second Union Church helps support a number of charities, including La Fondita de Jesús and Refugio de Niños Manuel Fernández Juncos. The church also lends its space to an Alcoholic Anonymous (AA) group that meets once a week.

“We did a lot after the hurricane, we went out and helped families, people who lost their homes, and we got a washer and dryer, a bed, and we had it delivered,” he said. “If we give to the Lord and give to the poor, God is going to take care of us, and he has, and we are grateful.”

Zoba has been the pastor at the church for 15 years, and his salary comes from his congregation.

“We are self-supporting, we have a self-governing congregation, we raise our funds, we don’t get funds from other sources…,” Zoba said.

Parroquia Santa Bernardita

Meanwhile, at Parroquia Santa Bernardita in San Juan, Father Wilfredo “Willie” Peña has also taken some innovative approaches to help pay for the church’s operational costs. The church has 33 ministries.

One of its ministries donates food, and church members cook breakfast and lunch, which is sold on Sundays, and with the funds raised some of the church’s bills can get paid.

“Our community is pretty stable, and so when our church members can cooperate with their offering on Sundays and others donate materials, others donate their time, that helps us,” Peña said.

He said church members always come up with ways to help raise some funds, and “then we continue to find solutions, just like everyone else in Puerto Rico.”

The church also created a nonprofit religious cultural institution, called PSB Productions (named after Parroquia Santa Bernardita), and holds a theatrical performance twice a year at Centro de Bellas Artes Luis A. Ferré in San Juan’s Santurce district. During April, the company’s young actors are performing “Fiddler on the Roof.” The money raised, however will be donated to Casa Raquel, a women’s pro-life help center near the church, in San Juan’s Country Club neighborhood, and the nonprofit La Fondita de Jesús. Some of the money is saved for a future theatrical production, Peña explained.

After the passage of Hurricane Maria, the church’s structure was not affected, and it became a space for people who needed to eat, pray and talk. The church’s kitchen is supplied with gas, so Peña made sure to have the tanks filled so the church could help families and others who needed food. After the hurricane, it was difficult for many islanders to get a hot meal, and Parroquia Santa Bernardita helped everyone who came.

“We were blessed with being the blessing for the people,” he said.

The community came together and helped the church after the hurricane, but thankfully, it didn’t suffer structural damages, Peña stressed.

“After the hurricane, the community came together and helped us. We became a life center and it was very beautiful to see all the people come to the church,” Peña said. “Our motto is Opening Doors for Christ, and we became a commodities center. Casa Raquel donated Pampers, baby clothes and other baby supplies. All that was put into use for the community after the hurricane.”

Peña said his salary comes from the community through donations made at Sunday service, but explained that some parishes that don’t have enough money from donations made by the community receive their basic salary from the archdiocese.

He noted that when the Puerto Rico Catholic Church filed for bankruptcy and the money was embargoed, the parish was affected, but things quickly turned around and everything returned to normal at Parroquia Santa Bernardita.

About 500 people attend Sunday morning mass and about 500 attend Sunday evening mass.

The church is also able to sustain itself financially thanks to donations or offerings from church members during mass. It also has a bookstore that sells Bibles and religious articles.

Parroquia San Juan de la Cruz

An innovative way another Catholic Church has managed to help pay operational costs is by selling coffee created by the parish, which is also sold at a number of supermarkets in Puerto Rico.

Father José Juan Cardona Díaz, of Parroquia San Juan de la Cruz in San Juan, said the parish needed to find ways to help pay for some of its operational costs, so they created a brand of 100 percent Puerto Rican coffee, Café Divino.

“About six years ago, we started to sell the coffee at the parish and then it started to be sold at local supermarkets such as Pueblo, SuperMax, Econo in Altamira and Selectos in the Caguas area,” Cardona Díaz said.

However, he explained that the coffee is on “standby” at local supermarkets because of the scarcity of Puerto Rican coffee, an issue that should not last too long, since its farming has continually ramped up after the historic 2017 hurricanes struck.

“It has been a good experience for our church, to help pay some of the operational costs and continue offering services,” he added.

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