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Sep 14, 2017 | Carol E. Barnwell

Grace in the Flooding

As the Diocese of Texas continues an energetic response to relief efforts after Harvey’s punishing rains, churches and volunteers from across the country have offered help. Within the Diocese congregations have sent teams to muck out homes and church buildings, neighbors and strangers. 

The Ven. Russ Oechsel, diocesan disaster coordinator, met Crystal while he served as chaplain at one of Houston’s emergency shelters. A day later Crystal called him desperate for help and Oechsel met her in a parking lot to give her a couple of gift cards to meet her immediate needs. Her gratitude mixed with tears.

Thom’s sister called the Diocesan Center because someone at a Houston Christian radio station told her she could find help for her elderly brother there. Yes, we would send someone to move Thom’s flooded personal belongings to the curb so the landlord could begin cleaning out the apartment. The relief in her voice was palpable. And yet, there are many areas of Houston that have yet to see work crews, find hope in the silt on their buckling floors or in the mold growing up their walls. Not to mention the many towns to the south and east where flood waters are still draining.  

The Rev. Stacy Stringer offered space at Holy Trinity, Dickinson, to the local United Way agency when their food pantry and offices were submerged in Harvey’s rains. The agency was up and running in a few days of the storm, church members helping to crew the area’s much needed food pantry. Two dozen Coast Guard members from out of state found a place to sleep for the night in the parish hall before they were released to go home and Stringer even found them rides to the airport. There isn’t a rental car to be found for hundreds of miles. Dickinson’s Lutherans will worship alongside Episcopalians at Holy Trinity until their church can be repaired.

In Southwest Houston, Iglesia Episcopal San Mateo flooded as did many of their members. No one can enter the sanctuary, it’s just too toxic and will require professional remediation to finish what faithful parishioners began to clear out. San Mateo’s rector, the Rev. Janssen J. Gutierrez, his wife Mariely and two teenagers, lost everything in their ground floor apartment to flood waters. Today they are living on the second floor of their complex, ministering to parishioners and contending with insurance adjusters to repair the church building and offices. 

Gutierrez said many of his members are undocumented and therefore have no access to state or federal relief. He has been rector of San Mateo for little more than a year. Christ Church Cathedral, Houston covered the cost of a tent under which the congregation will worship for the next month or so and Christ Church, Cranbrook, MI reached out to with offers for a long term relationship. 

Emmanuel in far west Houston was under water for more than a week so nearby Holy Spirit Episcopal Church offered office and worship space to the staff and congregation. The two congregations will share a pot luck supper this weekend. 

Mission teams from St. Alban’s, Waco traveled four hours to help clean out Holy Comforter, Spring and the rector, Jimmy Abbott’s home as soon as the rain subsided. Abbott was able to turn his attention to parishioners and neighbors who were dealing with the same huge losses.

“We are supporting our clergy and our churches so that they are able to do local ministry,” said the Rt. Rev. Andy Doyle. This isn’t his first rodeo. Hurricane Ike hit the Diocese of Texas in the months between Bishop Doyle’s election and consecration. He sees a robust rebuilding response over the next year, tapering through the following two to three years as needs are met. 

“This is our mission field,” said Karen Wynn, indicating the neighborhoods around Good Shepherd, Friendswood. With debris piled high in front of homes on streets radiating away from Good Shepherd, Wynn, the rector’s wife, was upbeat about helping the community. They had water in the offices and the Sunday school rooms, but the parish hall and church remained high and dry. Volunteers already had a white board up and had triaged almost 20 parishioners’ homes to clean out and had five teams working within a day of the storm. 

Members of St. Andrew’s, in Houston’s Heights, sent teams of people into the neighborhoods to “listen” and check in on their neighbors. They fielded a number of parishioners to unload $50,000 in donations from McMath Construction in Louisiana. Asked why he brought so much, Don McMath said: “Honestly, we were so busy during Katrina working, we couldn’t do any of this and it’s bothered me for 12 years. I didn’t want to miss the opportunity to pay back.” The McMath company also brought jambalaya for 500 people and fed people at Gallery Furniture and Iglesia Episcopal San Pablo before returning home. 

Local diocesan response to Harvey is supported by Episcopal Relief and Development with funds and expertise. “Their extensive experience has been invaluable,” Oechsel said. Many clergy expressed gratitude for video training during the immediate aftermath of the storm. The Diocese had spiritual care teams at shelters and neighborhoods almost before the five days of relentless rain stopped. The Rev. Lacy Largent continues to coordinate lay and clergy who are interested in joining teams who will listen to flood victims and offer gift cards and further help where needed, connecting people to resources in the church and community. Some churches have sent teams into their neighborhoods just to listen to people affected by the flooding.

The scene on Jan and Susie Bromley’s street in Orange could have been in Katy, Richmond, Bellaire, Beaumont or Vidor. Breakfronts that once held heirloom china piled atop soaking carpet and stacks of bent hardwood or parquet flooring piled at the curb. Leather recliners tilted over dining room chairs and dressing tables, children’s stuffed animals and piles of clothing already covered with mold. Then the wet sheetrock on top of all of it all—a varmint’s dream condominium on street after street.

Jan is fighting liver cancer and is in a wheel chair. As the water rose to the windows, Susie called her grandsons to help move Jan upstairs at the house next door. “I didn’t know if we were even doing the right thing,” Susie said. “He collapsed when we got there finally and we had to be rescued by boat.” The Bromleys lost both cars in the flood so the rector of their church loaned them his truck to get to Jan’s chemo treatments.

Standing in Susie’s living room, one can see through the exposed studs to the hall and bedrooms beyond. You have to talk over the fans and dehumidifier. She hugs Bishop Jeff Fisher who has come to visit and pray with the family, tears streaming down her face. It’s all too much for Susie, for the Bishop, for Jan, even for the dogs that run barking in confusion in the back yard. 

Moments of grace abound. They take the form of a circle of prayer or a truck from Pennsylvania filled with pallets of water, food and diapers. The perfect pair of used jeans for the man who has no clothes but the ones on his back.

The Rev. Steve Balke, rector of St. Stephen’s, Beaumont, carries his son’s air mattress to his car, the super hero sheet flapping in the breeze. Balke has been sleeping on the floor in his office for a few days. The distribution center at St. Stephen’s is capably run by parishioners, a number of whom have nothing left to go home to. Their sofas are submerged, their photos are still floating somewhere between the bookshelves and the hall bathroom, the pots and pans collect silt beneath the toxic water in the kitchen corner.

As supplies continue to ebb and flow, one truck arrives with water, another with more diapers, the water slowly, slowly drains in the surrounding fields. Another truck from Lampasas arrives. Donations gathered by Hoffpauir Auto Group in Lampasas. Moments of Grace … 

The sun is out, and we watch the news from Florida as we continue to respond as the Gospel would have us do.