On any given weekday you can visit Bethel Lutheran Church in Dorado, Puerto Rico, and find its gates open. Venture into its backyard and you’ll notice a series of classrooms, once used only for Sunday Bible classes, now alive daily with activity.
Today these rooms have become transformative spaces for healing and support to Bethel’s members and neighbors.
According to research conducted by the Behavioral Sciences Research Institute in the Medical Sciences Campus of the University of Puerto Rico, 7 percent of the adult population between the ages of 18 and 64 suffers from serious mental illness.
In response to this national health concern, members of the Bethel congregation surveyed their community and discovered that mental health and its care were indeed important concerns for their neighbors.
“One can feel it on the pastoral level with parishioners and with the community that there are situations that affect one emotionally,” said Ivette Salgado, pastor of Bethel. “Situations related to economy, alcoholism, drug addiction and unemployment.”
The seeds of a new ministry took root with Bethel member, Maribel Lopez, a professor of psychology at the nearby University Carlos Albizu. Lopez was given permission by the university to supervise doctoral students who would offer accessible counseling sessions to the community.
From these sessions, an idea evolved. Bethel would establish a unique ministry in 2013 called IntegrArte, which is a play on Spanish words, meaning integrated art and in the same sense, to join in, to become a part of something. For the Bethel congregation, the name reflects a ministry of hope across generations.
The Bethel ministry started with a support group for youth and young adults with Asperger’s syndrome and also adult support groups that engaged in art therapy. The ministry grew to include beginning and advanced wood-carving classes. Sessions take place alongside other church ministries, such as youth group and congregation council meetings. Many of those who seek individual therapy sessions learned of the ministry through word of mouth, but others came through referrals—even from towns outside of Dorado. A session costs $5, but those who cannot afford to pay are not turned away.
“They gather, they share, they laugh and are able to channel their worries and tensions while surrounded by a support group.”
In 2016, IntegrArte received a two-year ELCA World Hunger Grant to support costs toward offering psychological services to low-income families. Through this investment, the commitment of the congregation and numerous partnerships with the community, IntegrArte has become a thriving ministry.
There are moments that stand out in the short history of IntegrArte. One mother, whose adult son had emotional difficulties after his wife left him, said that, although her son continues to have problems, he knows where to go to ask for help.
“They are always open to helping,” she said. “Many people can’t receive these services because they have no health insurance or they can’t afford it, but here they will help you regardless. I have recommended this program to many people.” She went on to say that the program has helped many people, young and old, by helping them talk through the discernment of major life decisions.
Now in its fourth year, the dream continues for Salgado. “Our plan this year is to see if we can expand classes to include music. People enjoy the program. They say that they look forward to this time in the afternoons because for them art class is like a kind of therapy too,” she said. “They gather, they share, they laugh and are able to channel their worries and tensions while surrounded by a support group.”
Salgado and the Bethel congregation are open to endless possibilities and partnerships.
“There is a phrase I’ve read in many self-help books,” Salgado said. “It says, ‘When you serve, it is like the flow of blood in the body. What goes out in one direction always returns. What goes down goes up to be received again.’ What is done in service has impact and heals you too. This healing is a collective healing because eventually what is healed ‘over there’ will heal what is ‘over here’ too.”
The experiences of the Bethel congregation teach the meaning of service. It is service that moves our faith into action, and then through God’s grace, this action turns around for our own healing.