We approached the Rt. Rev. Reus Froylán at the Episcopal Church of Vieques with some embarrassment. We had just come from attending the Yauco Church of Padre Pedro del Valle Tirado. Padre Pedro had been ousted by the Ecclesiastical Court, and the bishop's act had been met with angry militancy. Bishop Reus had seen us at the Yauco church, and knew of our friendship with Padre Pedro; but he greeted us with a warm embrace.
We saw him next at his home in Saint Just, a suburb of San Juan. We had been given permission to camp in our van at the temporary location of Villa Sin Miedo. Following the brutal eviction of the "squatter" community and destruction of their homes and gardens, Bishop Reus had given them refuge on five acres of Episcopal land. The bishop's home was on adjoining property, near the church headquarters. We found him warm and approachable. As we sat chatting in the kitchen, his wife, Doreen, served us cold drinks. We found the home simple and unpretentious, enriched only by art, music and literature.
There was a more formal interview in his office next to the Saint Just Episcopal Church. "I never wanted to be a priest," he confided with a twinkle in his eye. "My father was a priest and wore nothing but black. I just didn't want to go around dressed in black. Furthermore, I'd be required to wear a hat." But he finally discarded the possibility of any other career, and began studying for the priesthood.
Following his B.A. from the University of Puerto Rico, he entered the Dubase Memorial School in Tennessee. Honorary doctorate degrees were conferred on him by the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee, the Interamerican University of Puerto Rico, and by the General Seminary in New York City.
His first church was at Magueyes, Puerto Rico. He loved the rural life and his work with poor people. He found them clean and hard-working, and he enjoyed the Jíbaro folklore. It evoked memories of his childhood in Moravia. As a priest's son, he had grown up in comfortable circumstances. Finding himself the only one in school wearing shoes, he would hastily discard his
as soon as he had left home. He recalled the fragile huts there, and how, when they were destroyed by a hurricane, the people would take refuge in caves.
In pursuing his career, he filled various posts throughout Puerto Rico as teacher, chaplain, and, finally, priest. His wide range of interests and concerns led him to accept the directorship of the Puerto Rican Annual Youth Conference, to become a member of the Puerto Rican Boy Scout Council and member of the Board of Directors of St. Luke's Episcopal Hospital. He has supported programs for the mentally retarded, as well as serving on numerous church committees.
Bishop Reus was the first native Puerto Rican to serve as Bishop of the Puerto Rican Episcopal Church. This appointment, in 1964, was one of the first steps toward making the church autonomous. By 1979 the Puerto Rican churches were functioning on their own, having separated from the United States organization. The thirty-eight churches are now more than fifty percent self- supporting, and have developed their own constitution, liturgy and hymnology.
Bishop Reus' concern for the underprivileged has not waned since his days of serving a poor country church. "The economic policies of President Reagan have maimed the hopes of the poor and the minorities in the North American nation," he declared in a speech to the priests and congregations of the Puerto Rican churches. "The government should increase its efforts to guarantee that nobody in our country goes hungry, lacks clothing, lives in sub-human conditions, is limited from obtaining a good education, be without medical care or be unemployed if he can work. These basic necessities are not privileges that the church can give to the poor, but absolute rights of everybody. When one invests millions of dollars in the armaments system, or wastes money in the caprices of senators, representatives or mayors, one can hear the groans of a people who suffer." He sees the church as the conscience of the community, the nation, and the world. He warns, however, against politicizing the Gospel.
In action, he has defended Episcopalian worker, María Cueto, victim of Federal Grand Jury harassment and two imprisonments for refusing to answer to the jury. He has spoken up to mining industries against the environmental impact of open pit copper mining in central Puerto Rico. He opposes further production of nuclear weapons, and supports the Episcopalian resolution protesting U.S. Navy occupation of Vieques. Recently, having long been in agreement with admitting women to the ministry, he ordained the first woman priest in Puerto Rico. His giving shelter to Villa Sin Miedo was a controversial and courageous act, incurring the wrath of Governor Romero, who had hoped to see the community destroyed. Episcopalian land sheltered not only Villa Sin Miedo until such time as it purchased its own land, but also Hogar Créa, a home center for drug addicts.
In a publication by PRISA, Apuntes Para Una Pastoral Descolonizadora, he describes the history of churches in Puerto Rico. Their original role was to maintain the status quo. The Catholic Church came in with the Spanish conquistadores in full support of their colonizing. The Protestant Churches came with the United States military occupation to serve not the needs of the Puerto Rican people, but those of the corporations and the colonizing power. Only recently has the church come into an awareness of the role of liberation. Bishop Reus sees the duty of the church, first of all, to recognize the fact that, as the United Nations declares, Puerto Rico is still a colony, and as such has full right for self-determination.
"The colonizer has to resolve the situation," he tells us. "If not, the colonized has every right to rebel and struggle for its liberty. The church which maintains a colonial relationship cannot speak with moral integrity."
He sees the role of the church also as preserving the culture of Puerto Ricothe liturgical music, architecture, sculpture and paintingin the face of the onslaught of North American culture. The church must as well try to break through the mentality of dependency, and prove to the people that they are capable of governing themselves and providing their own food. Though he sees Puerto Rico as more advanced in racial equality than the United States, there is still a subtle discrimination that the church needs to discourage. Just as the Episcopal church is gradually losing its financial dependency on the North American church, so the country needs to break out of the paternalistic dependency created by its colonizer.
Bishop Reus rues the persecution and harassment faced by those striving for independence. The church can help in the protection of human rights. He deplores the possibility of Puerto Ricans being drawn into military intervention in Central America. Only in the elimination of injustice and oppression can the church be truly the Body of Christ, he maintains.
"I am not advocating violence or armed revolt," he wrote us when I asked if he truly considered himself an independentista, "but I speak out boldly. Take the steps to continue the protest which has already started. If Muñoz [Marín, former governor of Puerto Rico] could bring about such tremendous changes without bloodshed, so can the people of Puerto Rico do the same thing now."
When Villa Sin Miedo moved from the Episcopalian land, and onto the property they were able to purchase, Bishop Reus felt we were no long safe in the deserted area. He then invited us to move into his backyard, and we enjoyed a closer friendship.
His wife, Doreen, had been most hospitable to us, giving us use of their bathroom facilities and refrigerator. Her recent death was a tragic loss not only to the bishop, but to the Saint Just Church and the Episcopal parochial school where she had played an important role.
Beneath the dignity of ceremonial robes and miter is a man of humility, always open for a good joke. When guests once inquired about our camper parked in his backyard, he explained that that was where he kept his in-laws. Surely he wouldn't have them in his home! He allowed for a moment of horror. "Do they eat there, sleep there?" Then he confessed that we were camping there. And so we were, enjoying the quiet seclusion among palm trees, a banana grove and mango trees.