An Army family gathering in Puerto Rico

by Hugo Bravo

When Salvationists come together from across the division or territory to worship, it’s usually referred to as a congress. But in San Juan, Puerto Rico, Salvationists from the island and beyond called it something else: a gathering of family and loved ones.

At the Embassy Suites in San Juan, The Salvation Army of Puerto Rico hosted a weekend of live music, ministry, and worship at “You Matter/¡Eres importante!”

“Sometimes we focus on only one aspect of our importance, such as what we mean to one person or to one role, like our job. But we are all important in so many more ways than that,” said Major Lydia Mercado, divisional director of women’s ministries for the Puerto Rico and Virgin Islands Division.

“We are important to God because we are the crowning achievement of His creation. We are also important in each of our Salvation Army corps; we all have gifts to share and to receive in His beautiful church. And most of all, we are all important because we all have a part to play in His eternal Kingdom.”

“We have been praying for this for a long time. We haven’t always been able to gather as a family in this division as we are doing today,” said Major Juan Mercado, divisional commander of the Puerto Rico and Virgin Islands Division, as he welcomed everyone on Friday night. “But this weekend, this hotel becomes a house of God.”

The Salvation Army New York Staff Band performed Creation, an arrangement of traditional Army brass medleys combined with popular songs from movies like Rio and The Little Mermaid and from pop bands like Coldplay and Electric Light Orchestra. Creation tells the story of God making the heavens, the earth, and all its inhabitants. It was the first time that Creation was performed with an accompanying Spanish narration.

“What a treat we’ve been gifted tonight to enjoy,” said Major Eric Rodriguez, mission engagement secretary for the Eastern Territory, at the closing blessing. “Thank you to the New York Staff Band for giving us all a taste of what’s to come this weekend.”

True believers

On Saturday, as the New York Staff Band performed Creación to an outdoor audience at San Juan’s Distrito T-Mobile entertainment and retail complex, back at the Embassy Suites, the music and arts department of the Puerto Rico and Virgin Islands Division was preparing for the debut performance of Todo el Que Cree/All Who Believe, an interactive worship experience.

Todo el Que Cree/All Who Believe is a mixed-media interpretation of stories from the Book of John. We wanted to do a project with inspiration from other Salvation Army performances like Godspell, Jesus Theater, and Oasis,” said Krystal Morales, social media/program coordinator for the Puerto Rico and Virgin Islands Division and producer of Todo el Que Cree/All Who Believe. “It’s not just a play, it’s not just a musical, it’s not just dance—it’s all those things and more.”

Before the performance, the audience members were given an interactive worship kit with sealed bags, each to be opened during a key moment in the Book of John. Onstage during the story of Christ’s miracle at the wedding in Cana, a small container of grape juice was presented from inside the bag, a symbol of the water turning into wine. As Jesus defended the woman accused of adultery by the Pharisees, the audience opened another bag with a felt “rock” inside, as Jesus proclaimed that anyone who is without sin should cast the first stone.

“When Jesus was performing miracles, there were a lot of people who had different responses to Him and to what He was doing,” says Natalia Cruz, Dance Ministries Specialist & Kroc Center Creative Arts Liaison. “We wanted to capture that through the audience and put them on that journey of seeing who Jesus is and what those miracles are.”

Cruz, who spent the summer writing Todo el Que Cree/All Who Believe, said that a big part of her own creative process was constantly turning back to the Bible and seeing how to stay faithful to the stories in the Book of John, while at the same time presenting them in new ways.

“I had never written something like this from scratch. I was always asking myself, ‘Do I focus on the lighting cues here? Do I make notes of where the actors enter?’” Cruz said. “But eventually, we all found the perfect balance of worship, performance, band arrangements, songs, and dance.”

Making the band

Soldier Sandra Rosa and her three grandchildren Abryel, Jean Pyell, and Kytana, junior soldiers at The Salvation Army San Juan Corps, first came to the corps during Hurricane Maria, hoping to find a meal.

“We were given food for our bodies, and then we were given food for our souls,” said Sandra.

The family joined the San Juan Corps, and the grandchildren took part in Bible studies, sports, and Fortissimo, the corps’ acclaimed music program. At “You Matter/¡Eres importante!” they and other Fortissimo students had the opportunity to take part in musical worship and play with the New York Staff Band.

“When I played piano on Friday night for worship, I was shaking!” said Abryel, laughing. “But then I got more comfortable, and I just let the music take me.”

“I’m nervous, but I also feel ready,” said Jean Pyell. “I’m happy and excited to play with the New York Staff Band on Sunday. We’ve all seen them perform in the past.”

“[San Juan corps officer] Lieutenant Shirley Figueroa said that they needed me to play drums and wanted me to be part of the rehearsals. Those were long and intense, but once you start, the music carries you with it,” said Kytana. “During the performance, I looked over while playing and saw Salvationists in the front row worshiping and crying as we played. That made me want to keep playing and do my best.”

In a weekend designed to remind us that we are all important and have numerous roles to play in life, it’s fitting that young music students like Abryel, Jean Pyell, and Kytana were able to showcase their talents alongside the professionals of the Salvation Army New York Staff Band.

“There’s never been anything like this weekend for Puerto Rican Salvationists,” said Sandra. “It has all been extraordinary, and so much more than I ever imagined.”