Three years ago this weekend, Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico. But many who left the island for Central Florida have become valued members of our community, a guest columnist writes. (Steve Heap // Shutterstock)

“You must treat the outsider as one of your native-born people — as a full citizen — and you are to love him in the same way you love yourself; for remember, you were once strangers…” (Leviticus 19:34)

Hurricane Maria changed the landscape of Central Florida. In its aftermath, Central Floridians welcomed thousands of new neighbors into our region. While our local elected officials struggled with the words to describe these newcomers (displaced, temporary residents, refugees, visitors, etc.), Central Floridians embraced their new neighbors. Our community united and filled in the many gaps left behind by a failed federal response to these U.S. citizens from Puerto Rico.

As I reflect on the past three years since Maria struck Puerto Rico on Sept. 20, 2017, I give thanks to the Lord for the many gifts he has provided our region through these new neighbors. I remember seeing the words “Puerto Rico Strong” at Orlando International Airport in one of my visits to welcome displaced families to their new home. The phrase is a powerful commentary on the strength and resolve of the island and her people. It also represents the strength and resolve that has settled into our neighborhoods over the past three years.

This is not an “ay bendito” (“woe is me”) story. This is a story of resilience, strength, and community. Hurricane Maria brought to Central Florida leaders who represent the very best of what Puerto Rico has always offered our nation.  Hurricane Maria exposed Puerto Rico’s heart and soul.

Here are a few stories:

Javier and Arleen Figueroa arrived to Orlando with their children. They immediately realized that they wouldn’t be content with only removing the obstacles they faced. Advocating for their autistic son gave them an appetite to advocate for others. Javier is disabled but ably lifts up his voice to help. Arleen lost a business in Puerto Rico but not her entrepreneurial spirit. She works to both provide for her family and also to rebuild her business here in Orlando.  Together they not only build up their family and business but also their new community. From advocating for housing to being a powerful voice for children and education, they tear down artificial obstacles that prevent equal access to opportunity for all Central Floridians. Today they continue to work, advocating for children and education.

Nydia Irizarry arrived at Orlando International Airport on a private flight, her child dying of cancer. Bureaucracy prevented her from accessing federal assistance for her evacuation and resettlement. Nydia hustled for her children and with the help of private foundations and her new neighbors her daughter is alive and healthy; her son is thriving; and her family is settled. In the midst of this, she found the energy to work for our local church welcoming displaced families and connecting them to aid and resources. She not only listens and cries with our families, she reveals hope and strengthens them. Today she continues to work taking care of vulnerable families.

Carmen “Milly” Santiago arrived to Kissimmee with her family. Faced with incredible hardship, and feeling that FEMA failed in its duty of care to the displaced in Central Florida, she organized and mobilized. Milly worked diligently for other families and became known as the Mayor of the Super 8. Today she continues to organize and advocate for all our Central Florida families.

Marielisa Figueroa arrived to another part of Central Florida. Marielisa became part of a team that scored many wins for her community. Marielisa was to Orange and Seminole counties what Milly was to Osceola County. Her leadership and ability to network united the voices of families in Seminole, Osceola and Orange counties. Today she continues to inspire our community to unite and speak in one voice.

These families contribute to a community that attracts those who want to not only thrive and succeed but contribute and participate. They were newcomers but today we can say, “You are my friends” (John 15:14). These families remind us that we were all once strangers. These families work to ensure that all newcomers are welcomed. In doing this for all of us, these families are now defined by their commitment to our shared community, not by Hurricane Maria.

“Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household.” (Ephesians 2:19).

Rev. Dr. José Rodríguez is the vicario of Iglesia Episcopal Jesús de Nazaret in Orlando.