After years of hardship in Puerto Rico, family devoted to helping others in York


Quarter-sheets of paper dispersed around York City show a man clutching his heart and ask, "If you were to die this day, where will you spend eternity?"

Under the man's picture is a Bible verse and the contact information for a local church.

The leaflets are the work of pastors Jose Rodriguez-Santiago and his wife, Yolanda Nieves, and members of their small ministry in York City: Iglesia de Dios Pentecostal Movimiento Internacional Getsemani, or Gethsemane Pentecostal Church of God International Mission.

There are three other churches of the same mission in York, Rodriguez-Santiago said, and many more throughout the world.

Rodriguez-Santiago and Nieves, Puerto Ricans who moved from the island to York with their four children in May 2009, said a call from God and untenable circumstances pushed them to leave for the U.S. mainland.

"We started from scratch," Rodriguez-Santiago said.

Helping others: After arriving in York, the couple was involved with several different Pentecostal churches. They decided to start their own mission last April. At first they were operating from their living room — now, they rent space in a church every Sunday afternoon.

The ministry has about 20 committed members, most of whom the couple says are from Puerto Rico. Much of the work the couple does, however, extends beyond the congregation.

"We want to reach out to people," Rodriguez-Santiago said.

The couple gets calls from those in the community who need help, and they try their best to provide it. Sometimes this means praying with people in tough circumstances and talking with them about the Bible. "We try to open people up — open their hearts and have a conversation." Rodriguez-Santiago said. "We want to get to the root of all things in life."

Sometimes it means counseling those who are troubled, helping people find a job or a place to stay, or connecting people with social-service agencies.

"Some people don't know where to go, what to do ... and we've been through that process (of starting over)," Rodriguez-Santiago said.

The couple's children help with the ministry, and the family is very close, he said.

The kids play music at prayer meetings in the family home and during services in the sanctuary where the ministry rents space — Grace Reformed United Church of Christ, 225 N. Hartley St. in York City.

Idalis, 20, sings while Andres, 17, plays guitar and Daniel, 14, plays the drums.

Leaving Puerto Rico: Rodriguez-Santiago and Nieves said that, although they both have bachelor's degrees, good jobs on the island were scarce and, though they were both working, they couldn't afford adequate housing for their family. They said they also were unsatisfied with the quality of medical care and education in Puerto Rico.

To save enough money to move his family to York, where he had some acquaintances who could help them settle in, Rodriguez-Santiago said that for several months he worked a construction job at an oil refinery in St. Croix.

The couple said they have taken in a total of 14 foster children since 2012. Nieves, who is trained as a social worker, cares for the couple's biological and foster children while Rodriguez-Santiago works at Service Access and Management on a joint planning team, working with families of children with behavioral and mental health issues who have been referred to the company from social-service agencies.

The family is far from alone in leaving Puerto Rico. Since the island is a U.S. territory, Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens and can move between the mainland and the island with ease.

Last year, 84,000 people left the island for the U.S. mainland, according to the Pew Research Center's analysis of the U.S. Census' American Community Survey. As of 2013, there were more Puerto Ricans living on the U.S. mainland than in the territory itself.

Because of its extended economic recession, the territory's population began declining in 2006 and continued to go down through 2013; in the two years between 2011 and 2013, Puerto Rico's population decreased by 50,000 each year, according to the analysis. Of those who left, 42 percent said they were leaving for job-related reasons.

The island's economy has shrunk with its population, according to the Pew Research Center. Last May Puerto Rico's unemployment rate was 12.4 percent, more than twice the national rate.

Because Puerto Rico has massive debt that it cannot pay — the territory might run out of money in November and cannot claim bankruptcy — times are now especially bad there. Puerto Rico has been forced to implement austerity measures, such as closing some public schools and drastically hiking its sales tax, Ambrose Evans-Pritchard reported in the Telegraph UK.

As a result, prices on consumer goods are rising, and there has been an exodus of workers, which has created a "death spiral" reminiscent of Greece's recent struggles with debt, Evans-Pritchard writes.

"People there are going crazy," Rodriguez-Santiago said when asked about the current situation in Puerto Rico.

Blessings: The couple said it's been difficult finding their footing in York, but they feel blessed to have a house and for the education and technical training their kids have gotten since coming here.

"We've seen the fruits of our efforts; we've found the things we were looking for," Rodriguez-Santiago said.

The couple's daughter Ruth, 18, said she was happy to come to York.

Idalis, who was 13 when the family moved, said it was hard leaving her friends on the island and that she misses family most — both sets of grandparents are still in Puerto Rico, although her paternal grandmother plans to move to York soon.

When members of the family part, even for a little while, Rodriguez-Santiago said, they keep in mind that they might never see one another again.

"This is something unique (about our culture)," Rodriguez-Santiago said. "In Puerto Rico, we ask for blessings whenever we leave."

— Reach Julia Scheib at,