Story by Sam Hodges, photos by Kathleen Barry
Sept 11, 2017 | HUFFMAN, Texas (UMNS)
For the second Sunday morning in a row, members of Lake Houston United Methodist Church set up folding chairs and held worship outside.
Flood damage from Hurricane Harvey has put their sanctuary out of commission for months. Some at the Sept. 10 service also lost their homes, including Christine and Gary Jordan.
“The worst part of this is seeing everything you ever had on the side of the road,” Gary Jordan said.
Flood-related woes abound across southeast Texas, and in the worst-hit areas, small mountain ranges of soggy insulation, carpeting and mementoes have formed street-side, near uninhabitable homes.
But at the outdoor service, when the Rev. Frank Coats asked church members to share any personal concerns, three people called out at once: “Florida!”
“Florida,” echoed Coats, Lake Houston United Methodist’s pastor. “I’m so proud of you for saying that.”
As Hurricane Irma bore down on Florida and Georgia, United Methodists who survived the ruinous rains that accompanied Hurricane Harvey late last month were worrying about and praying for their neighbors to the east.
Though they had one eye on the news, the Texans were also busy cleaning out homes and churches, and finding ways to serve their hard-hit communities. They’re witnesses, and perhaps role models, in what’s shaping up as an infamous hurricane season.
“You take a few deep breaths, you read some Scripture and you keep going,” said the Rev. Alicia Coltzer Besser, superintendent of the Texas Conference’s Southeast District.
Hurricane Harvey and its aftermath claimed more than 70 lives and damaged nearly 200,000 homes. The Texas Conference alone reports 75 churches with at least some damage.
Though Houston grabbed most of the media attention, some of the blue-collar towns in Besser’s district had, pound for pound, more devastation due to rains as heavy as 50 inches in 24 hours.
About 80 percent of the families at First United Methodist Church in Vidor, Texas, were forced from their homes. The pastor, the Rev. John Mooney, is living with his wife and two small children in a donated camper on the church parking lot because they too were flooded out.
But the Vidor church was where, on Sept. 9, people who had cut themselves busting out Sheetrock or pulling out carpet tacks could get a free tetanus shot. A steady stream of residents filed into the church’s gym to take advantage.
During the worst of the flooding, on Aug. 29-30, First United Methodist of Vidor was a crucial overnight shelter, despite losing water and power and having a backed-up sewage system.
“We had people sleeping in the pews,” said Whitney Cappen, who does children’s ministry at the church and has been an ongoing flood-relief volunteer. “I’ve learned lessons from this. Those pews aren’t just made for us to sit in. They’re made for us to reach out and help our community.”
Though the church’s time as an overnight shelter for flood evacuees has ended, it’s preparing to turn its gym into a place where volunteer work crews can stay.
Woodcrest United Methodist in Lumberton, Texas, continued this past weekend to be a shelter for a couple of dozen people. The church housed 350 at one point, as well as pet dogs, cats, birds, ferrets and even a guinea pig and a fish.
The Rev. Charles Jordan, pastor, worked with leaders of other local churches in organizing to meet the sudden need. For those sleeping on cots, volunteers cooked meals, filled prescriptions, washed dirty laundry and walked the dogs.
It was like a cruise ship without the views, some said. James Powell, one of those still staying at the church Sept. 9, got emotional talking about the help he’d received from the ecumenical network.
“I didn’t know they had people like that in Lumberton,” he said.
At First United Methodist Church in Orange, a few miles away, the Rev. Keith Tilley was among those flooded out. He didn’t mince words.
“It looks like my house vomited on the front lawn,” he said. “And every house out here is like that.”
But Tilley was at his church, making sure a work crew from First United Methodist Church in Carthage, Texas, could get in to take showers and prepare for an overnight stay.
The Carthage team showed up as the sun was setting, having spent most of the day cleaning out the ruined home of an elderly member of First United Methodist in Orange.
“It was hard, and it was hard emotionally,” said Tonia Crittenden, one of the Carthage volunteers. “You’re telling this sweet little lady, `You’ve got to throw this in the trash.’”
Everywhere in southeast Texas, there are stories of survival and endurance.
Mike Toups is the building supervisor at Wesley United Methodist Church in Beaumont, Texas, but he and his wife, Tammy, are living with their five dogs in the church’s Scouting building for the near future.
With the floodwaters rising, they were evacuated from their home by game wardens in an airboat. They escaped with their clothes, their dogs and a 50-pound sack of dog food.
“Two horses we can’t find,” Mike Toups said. “By the time the game wardens got to us, (the water) was probably three foot and rising. So we were lucky to get out with the dogs.”
He’s still searching websites for any news of their horses.
HOW TO HELP
United Methodists wishing to help can make donations directly through UMCOR’s Domestic Disaster Response Advance #901670.
At Lake Houston United Methodist, church members and a team from Christ United Methodist Church in College Station, Texas, spent Sept. 9 pulling out Sheetrock and carpeting.
Coats, the pastor, noted that a four-wheeler was brought in at one point to help pull out the recalcitrant carpeting. “Redneck American ingenuity,” he said.
The church’s displaced members include Rose Burnett, 84.
“All gutted,” she said of her home. “The whole street is.”
But Burnett was smiling as she took her place with others gathering for Sunday worship Sept. 10 on the driveway at Lake Houston United Methodist.
For those facing Hurricane Irma’s wrath, this Harvey evacuee would recommend resuming church life as soon as possible.
And it’s fine with her if it has to be outdoors.
“We need this,” she said, gesturing at small groups of her fellow church members exchanging handshakes and hugs in the bright sunshine. “We need the fellowship and the love of each other.”
Sam Hodges, a United Methodist News Service writer, lives in Dallas. Contact him at (615) 742-5470 or [email protected]
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