Serving in Puerto Rico

Dedication of La Plata hospital, 1940s. | Dwight and Imy Hanawait photo

Mennonites had major role in developing hospitals, agriculture in island territory

Mennonites played a significant role in Puerto Rico’s economic development, in the health care and agriculture industries, a former MEDA board member says. “It’s a fascinating story to me, and it’s very closely aligned with the work of MEDA,” Jim Alvarez says. Alvarez currently serves as director of finance and chief financial officer at Maple City Health Care Center in Goshen, Indiana. During his career, he has worked in health care, in agriculture and at Everence, where he served as CFO for 15.5 years.

Alvarez was born and raised in Aibonito, Puerto Rico, during the tail end of the Mennonite mission work in Puerto Rico. Telling the story of Mennonite influence in Puerto Rico between the 1940s and 1970s has become a passion project for Alvarez. He wants to document the efforts of as many people as possible so current and future generations will know of their efforts. The story of Mennonites in Puerto Rico begins in 1943, a decade before MEDA was created. During World War II, Anabaptist and Mennonite Christians whose belief in non-resistance was at odds with the military draft requirement, sought alternatives to going to jail, Alvarez said.

Patients were carried to La Plata hospital in hammocks like this one. | Addona Nissley photo

A US army general who had Anabaptist roots was sympathetic to their pleas and allowed the conscientious objectors to serve as healthcare workers in Puerto Rico. At the same time, Mennonite Central Committee found that they could not send people who had volunteered to serve in China and India to either of those countries due to the global conflict. “So this came together, and they started sending some of them to Puerto Rico.” Puerto Rico’s colonial history had created a significant economic problem, Alvarez said. Both Spain and the US had focused on “an extraction economy.”

Metals, food, sugar and coffee were all extracted from the country. The agriculture sector was developed along the coast of Puerto Rico for easy access to maritime transportation. “The people in the inner part of the island were forgotten and got nothing.” When Mennonites arrived in the mountainous La Plata region in 1943, they took over some agricultural projects, but quickly became aware of great needs for trained health care workers.

A large poultry barn in Puerto Rico, 1971 | Lawrence Greaser photo

“That’s how the healthcare program began in Puerto Rico.” Decades later, Alvarez became a board member at the Sistema de Salud Menonita hospital, which was created due to Mennonite efforts. He has served in that role for more than 12 years, and on a Goshen hospital board for a similar tenure. “I want to give back, and part of it is the storytelling around this topic,” he said. Alvarez’s father was “an agribusiness guy,” raising layer hens among other ventures. The elder Alvarez attended Goshen College in Indiana, meeting people like Stanley Miller and others who helped to develop commercial chicken production in Puerto Rico. Jim Alvarez first learned about MEDA while attending Goshen College in the early 1980s. He attended his first MEDA convention 20 years later after reconnecting with a college professor, started attending MEDA chapter (now called hub) meetings in Indiana, and eventually joined MEDA’s board in 2012.

Mennonite contributions to the Puerto Rican health care system have been more profound and enduring than efforts made by other church groups, he said. Even though the largest hospital in the Mennonite system has been a community hospital since 1976, the Mennonite name, brand and way of doing things endures, he said. The hospital’s tagline, “Caring with the love of Christ,” is an example of that, he said. The Mennonite health care system includes six acute care hospitals and 18 urgent care clinics, serving about 20 percent of the country’s population across the southeast one quarter of the island.

Royal Snyder (l), and a farmer examine a chicken. | Floyd Zehr photo

“It’s the most sustainable and financially stable system,” he said. Some other privately owned Puerto Rican hospitals have gone into liquidation or closed due to financial difficulties. Others need to find new partners due to carrying too much debt, he said. “It’s kind of a strange financial situation, but the Mennonite system has been run, I think, fiscally conservatively, and we’ve been blessed financially. Hospitals and education are part of the story. The church is part of the story. Then you also have the entrepreneurs who came down to serve and then stayed and became local entrepreneurs. There were several that stayed and developed mostly in agriculture, so the whole poultry industry was ramped up.”

That led to the poultry industry becoming one of the largest employers in that mountain area of the country, he said.

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