The Rev. Lisa Hines' Presentation to Council
Thank you, Bishop Doyle, for asking me to share with Council a little about our experiences in Bastrop since September. I am Lisa Hines of Calvary Episcopal Church, a transitional size church with a day school in Bastrop. I had been Rector of Calvary for less than a year when our physical and spiritual landscape changed dramatically. As most of you know, after a prolonged period of severe drought and intense heat, all it took was a spark, low humidity, and high winds for Bastrop County to catch fire on Labor Day weekend. The wildfire consumed thousands of acres of pine forests and almost 1700 homes, including the houses of more than forty families at Calvary Episcopal Church and Calvary Episcopal School. Ours was not the only wildfire in the Diocese last September, but it was by far the most destructive.
Before I say anything else, I wish to thank the Diocese and the people of this Diocese, for the outpouring of love and support shown to us in response to the wildfire. In the first week, while the fires were still burning, Bishop Doyle made a visit to Bastrop, and soon after Bishop Harrison came to be with us on a Sunday morning. The Diocese provided emergency funds for my Discretionary Fund and for me, and Canon Normand had clerical shirts shipped to my office. When the fires broke out, I was flying home from attending a wedding in California and arrived in Bastrop as a fire evacuee with nothing in my suitcase except spike heels and a little black dress—not quite the uniform the moment required. Bishop Doyle also sent the Diocesan Disaster Coordinators, Archdeacon Russ Oechsel and Deacon Gill Keyworth, to orient me to what I could expect in the coming months and to offer their help and support. In late-September the Bishop assigned Gill to spend several days each week in Bastrop to work on fire response, primarily navigating the complicated political process of fire relief and recovery, freeing me to fulfill my duties as rector, including providing pastoral care, discretionary funds and other resources to survivors both within and beyond the congregation and our day school.
And because of you, the people and congregations of the Diocese of Texas, we had resources to offer. You responded with a breathtaking generosity of spirit, sending us abundant prayers, gift cards, checks, lunch boxes, toiletries, clothing, and much more. I thank you with all my heart and apologize for not being able to accept all of your offers to help. It’s impossible to describe the volume of communication in those first days and weeks. While I was on the cell phone with one person, a dozen emails would arrive and four messages would be placed on my desk to return calls received on the office lines. Meanwhile we were trying to reach everyone in our community who lived in evacuated areas to learn where they were staying and what they needed. A few of our evacuated parishioners were staying in motels but most were with other families of the church or with friends who opened their homes. Several of our evacuees kept themselves busy helping to set up community shelters and distribution centers or volunteering in the office to help with phones and the mail that began arriving even before the fires were fully under control. I am proud of the many members of Calvary who took people into their homes or offered their varied gifts and time to Bastrop during and after the fires, serving wherever they were needed, including a volunteer fireman whose own home burned early in the ordeal.
We were for the first two weeks responding to a disaster that was still unfolding. Looking out the window of my downtown office on those first days, I could see roiling columns of smoke at the end of the streets in Bastrop’s historic district, and in the mornings, yellow clouds of ash would descend on the town. The flow of information about what had burned and what hadn’t was unreliable. People were told one day that their homes had burned, only to be told the next that they still stood. People who thought their houses were out of danger sometime learned otherwise; my husband, Chris, and I were among them. The fire had already passed us by on Monday, but in the early hours of Tuesday morning, it doubled back for one more lick, and our house earned the unhappy distinction of being the westernmost casualty of the fires.
Throughout each day people streamed into our church office on Main Street in Bastrop, looking for information, offering to help, asking for help—sometimes just small favors like to borrow a charger that worked on their cell phone. People came in to mourn destroyed houses and lost pets, to wait and wonder what would be left when the wildfires were controlled, if they could be controlled. Nothing was certain except our vulnerability in the face of nature and our dependence upon God and one another. We gathered for worship on Tuesday, the third evening of the fire, and we heard the words of scripture and the liturgy with new ears. We understood the Beatitudes not as rules for Christian behavior but as soothing words of hope from a loving parent to confused and hurting children. Like many others in the church that evening, I stood before God undefended, and to borrow words from Leonard Cohen, with “my heart in the shape of a begging bowl,” and I received grace upon grace into that emptiness. We found a place of joy that evening in the middle of what could easily have been mistaken for hell.
Calvary may be the only Episcopal Church in Bastrop County, but we now know ourselves to be part of a much greater communion of Episcopalians. We received contributions for fire relief from churches in Dioceses across the state and the country, sometimes in astonishing amounts. I promise you that we have been faithful stewards of the resources entrusted to us. We held a free garage sale for fire survivors to distribute clothing and household goods, and for months continued to provide supplies to people coming through our doors, including Christmas decorations that you sent to us in December. We renovated space on our campus for the use of a network of professional counselors who offered their services to Bastrop. We fed almost 500 people at Thanksgiving, many of them fire survivors still living in FEMA housing. We gave out gift cards over several months to scores of people to help with food, shoes, clothing, and gas for their cars; and I signed many checks to people who for the first time in their lives could not provide shelter and basic necessities to their families and for whom asking for help was a dark spiritual journey. Through God’s grace, they came to understand that money can be the medium of a holy exchange between God’s people, a sacrament revealing the inward and spiritual grace of God’s mercy and care.
Through Gill’s making critical connections in the Bastrop community meetings and through Russ’s continued efforts, and of course with the support of our Bishops, the Episcopal community is playing a significant role in the rebuilding and reforesting efforts that are finally getting underway in Bastrop County. With a grant from ERD, together with funds collected by the Diocese for wildfire response and with funds from my Rector’s Discretionary Fund, the Episcopal community is partnering with the Presbyterian, Baptist, and Methodist Churches to renovate a building in the nearby town of Smithville and to operate it as a facility to house up to 40 volunteers at a time from groups eager to come to the area to build homes and help plant seedlings to replenish the forest. It’s called Faith Village, and we have brochures available in the Exhibit Hall with information on how to reserve space for mission trips from your congregations. Episcopal funds are also paying the salary of a construction Site Leader and perhaps also a Volunteer Coordinator, and very importantly, helping to buy the materials needed to rebuild the homes of the uninsured and underinsured with volunteer labor.
I wish I could say the day has been won, but we have only just begun the recovery efforts for the economically disadvantaged in Bastrop County. Many more dollars are needed to buy construction materials for the hundreds of houses that need to be built. Given the heart of the people in the Episcopal churches in this Diocese, we are confident the money will come.
So, with the people of Calvary and of Bastrop, I praise God for your faithful witness to Christ’s church in the world. You have made a difference. Thank you.