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Nov 15, 2017 | Natalie I. Lancaster

Hurricane Harvey Hallelujah!

Emmanuel​ ​Episcopal​ ​Church​ ​Reborn​ ​with​ ​the​ ​support​ ​of​ ​Holy​ ​Spirit​ ​Episcopal​ ​Church

When you go through deep waters, I will be with you. Isaiah 43:2

Hurricane Harvey hit Houston with catastrophic flooding and devastation, but this story of recovery, renewal and rebirth is just beginning...The humongous storm hurled over 1 million gallons of rain into Houston leaving a devastating impact on our city. Emmanuel Episcopal Church, on the westside of Houston, drowned. This is a Hallelujah story of how they began to recover, to renew their commitment to community  and to be reborn in a new place, by water and the word, buoyed by the of support of Holy Spirit Episcopal Church.

Joint Animal Blessing Eucharist with Emmanuel and Holy Spirit, 2017

Hurricane Harvey, an unimaginable storm that lasted four days, drenched us with 50 inches of rain, a storm that had a one in about x 50,000 year chance of ever happening- but it did, and thousands lost their homes, their cars and all their personal belongings. Businesses were destroyed, roads closed, unsurpassable bridges caused traffic snarls that lasted for hours and/or days. Flooding everywhere by rain waters and the release of bulging dams left waste-waters full of bacteria and infection, causing much destruction for Houstonians to overcome.

The week Harvey hit, I had just started as Communications Director at Emmanuel. When I left the church Thursday afternoon, before landfall, none of us could even begin to imagine what would happen to our “Spiritual Oasis in West Houston”. We had no idea that some of our staff members and parishioners lives would be forever changed, some who would lose everything. The results of such intense flooding, tornadoes, fear and danger surround us.   

Many of Emmanuel’s leaders’ lives were shaken by the storm.  The Rev. Andrew Parker, rector at Emmanuel, and his wife, the Rev. Liz Parker, associate rector at Palmer Memorial, Houston, had to evacuate their home. Andra Abbott, church receptionist and long time member of the church and her husband Patrick, residents of the Bear Creek area, lost their home and their car. Toni Bejko, Director of the Emmanuel Episcopal Day School, who lives in Katy, had a foot of water in her home. Hooper Harris, senior warden, would have to evacuate his home and his office may be closed until next year. Lance Ferguson, one of Emmanuel’s vestry members, would become a community leader and hero in a matter of hours, helping people, and directing boat traffic as well as saving all that he possibly could from within the soggy walls of Emmanuel before it was completely closed for remediation.

For Father Andy and his wife, this wasn’t the first church destruction they had endured. The couple had survived the burning of a previous church Andy and Liz served. "Liz and I were serving as associate rectors at St. Andrew's, Amarillo when it ignited on a Sunday morning in February of 1996. By the time we got there, it looked like an English cathedral which had been bombed in the war, still smoking in places.  We all learned about improvisation and the essence of being church through that whole experience."  After Hurricane Harvey hit, Father Andy’s first thoughts were to seek a place for the community to worship. He was prepared to make the decisions that must come next for the recovery of the Emmanuel. 

Meanwhile, the Rev. Josh Condon, rector at Holy Spirit Episcopal Church, in the Memorial area, saw on Facebook that his closest “neighbor” church had flooded. He felt led to reach out and offer help to Emmanuel even though his church was undergoing renovations itself. That morning, when Condon saw Bishop Andy Doyle, he told him his church would be willing to help Emmanuel any way possible.  “Whatever Holy Spirit can do to host Emmanuel Church and School, we will do.”

Father Andy remarked, “I was thinking of three nearby places to call but before I could even make the first call, Bishop Doyle texted me that Josh had reached out to him and offered Emmanuel a place to worship and for our school. Holy Spirit has been amazing to work with despite the fact that during their own renovation, they have less space already.”

Making Room For School

Holy Spirit also made room for Emmanuel’s Day School. Toni Bejko, Head of Emmanuel Episcopal Day School,  has been so grateful for all the support for her school and her staff. “There is no question, Harvey had a huge impact on our school community, and we have a long road ahead of us for recovery, but with our spirit, determination and fierce effort we will come out stronger and and better than ever before! We are so blessed to be hosted, loved and welcomed by Holy Spirit Episcopal School,” she said. Toni had worked with Michelle Symonds, head of school and Cindy Northington, head of CEC (Child Enrichment Center)  over the years, which made the union that much smoother.  

Northington added “I reached out to Toni and offered classroom space, furnishings and materials so that they could continue their school program.  The Emmanuel preschool community has blended in seamlessly with our Holy Spirit School community! During our darkest times, God's light is always present. Our church and school bond is much stronger. Our entire community has come together to support and minister to one another.  It has been a blessing to get to know Emmanuel and to offer a space for their ministry to continue.” 

The biggest challenges the two churches have had to work together to overcome is the alignment of space. Since Holy Spirit is being renovated, they are worshiping Sunday mornings in their Parish Hall. Emmanuel is hosting their worship in the same hall Sunday afternoons. Condon added, “Since there is not much space to offer, it is difficult to meet all the needs and it has added a layer of logistics, but it is not a problem for Holy Spirit. Both churches have great staff, great schools and great people!” 

Phil Berrie, parish administrator for Emmanuel and Gardner Headrick, parish administrator for Holy Spirit, are working very closely together to organize activities for the commingled community. They meet weekly to discuss the needs of both parishes and they help each other problem solve. There is a strength emerging from the collaboration of two great leaders. They are not just sharing space, but best practices as well.

Emmanuel’s song has not been diminished either. Marilyn Bloemker, music director, and Carol Nave, organist, are harmonizing together to make sure that our music ministry continued. Carol knew Stephen Morris, director of music for Holy Spirit already. Together they have worked to continue keeping the music alive for Emmanuel.

The two churches have begun to share fellowship together. Father Josh remarked about the joint Potluck Lunch, “It was awesome. “I got to meet with some new people and we sat and visited - everyone felt welcome and it was great to spend time together to get to know each other. It is a great opportunity to get to know the congregation. We are working together and sharing. I hope that the communities will stay close, even after Emmanuel rebuilds. I see a long term relationship from this union. In the face of disaster, we moved together to grow our life in Christ and now we understand that God is with us in the midst of the storm. He is with us in all circumstances, eager to help align us and to guide us to a deeper relationship with Him and each other.”

Father Andy added “ We have been able to work with them, side by side, to find the best ways to move forward. We have learned a great deal by ‘rubbing shoulders together’ and really getting to know each other. The people of Emmanuel are so grateful for the privilege of worshiping in this new space, and in addition being able to host our school as well. We have planned several joint activities for both churches and the youth groups are planning events together as well. Holy spirit was able to provide everything we needed in a time we needed support. We have learned a lot from each other -- it has been a mutual learning and growing experience. It is wonderful to see all that God has in store for us as ‘always we begin again’.” 

The Rev. Brad Sullivan, associate rector at Emmanuel, had known Condon for years before. They were in the seminary together and had done some joint events with their youth in the past. He added, “The collaboration of the two churches is going very well. We are working hard to make sure that we are ‘good guests’. What’s really nice is that we are included in their events and they are included in ours -- like the Potluck Lunch and Animal Blessing. It was great to see that the parishes were not separated… they spent time together getting to know each other and sitting with new friends.” 

From the outside looking in, since I’m not a member of either parish, I am impressed with how the two churches are teaming up together to help work teams go out and help in the community. Father Brad and Lela Seay, director of children’s formation at Emmanuel, hosted Saturday morning coffees at Julie’s Pastry on Memorial Drive to share Hurricane Harvey stories with young families. “The impact to the community has been felt and we want to help our neighbors declutter, move their stuff and serve as much as we can to help them recover," Sullivan said. "That is what the church is all about. We have shared some good times together, learning from each other and working together. The synergy between the parishes has really grown and would not have been as strong without the storm.”

Emmanuel hosted a Jazz Eucharist and many parishioners from Holy Spirit joined in the musical procession with Bishop Doyle, leading the way with a joyfully jewelled purple umbrella! The youth groups are doing things together - like a recent afternoon at Top Golf, as are the SRENs - Holy Spirit's group for Senior Retired Empty Nesters - visited the Bush Library in College Station, as well as a neighborhood Trunk & Treat. The community is benefitting from sharing sacred time together and building new connections.

Hooper Harris, Senior Warden for Emmanuel, said “We​ ​want Emmanuel to become a post-​Harvey parish for a post​ ​Harvey west Houston. ​Thanks​ ​to​ ​the​ ​Reverend​ ​Josh​ ​Cannon,​ ​we​ ​are​ ​enjoying​ ​new​ ​growth​ ​with​ ​amazing hospitality​ ​at​ ​Holy​ ​Spirit​ ​Episcopal​ ​Church.”

After the storm, Father Andy said “We are being transformed by water and the word”. Water always brings new life. From my own point of view, the true gift of the storm has been to watch these two parishes come together to help each other. At this treacherous time, we have bonded together to serve. We have love and hope and help for everyone that surrounds us in the depths of our despair, swirling in waters of our unknown future. The collaboration between Holy Spirit and Emmanuel has truly moved me. I’m overwhelmed by their commitment to serve each other. Many have lost so much, and yet we are able to come together now for worship and fellowship. Together we link arms and push forward.  We will help each other move towards recovery and rebirth. We shall overcome with the support of these two amazing congregations that have truly become a new church without walls!

There is a trinity of triumph that is emerging from the connection between these two churches: hope, recovery and renewal. We all need a safe place to worship, to connect, and to grow. We have a renewed sense of hope to rebuild and begin again in a new place built by water and the word. We have recovered our place of worship and our school in a temporary location that meets our needs. We have renewed our commitment and connection to community by meeting other parishioners that we will continue to commune with in our future.

The liaison of these to churches working together to host a brighter future will leads us to a higher covenant of faith in our life in Christ. We can continue to move forward, to survive the storm and to be reborn again into a new post Harvey Emmanuel! Holy Spirit will emerge a stronger parish from their commitment to serve and support Emmanuel. This is the hallelujah of Harvey. It’s a great opportunity for us all “always to begin again.”