Healing From Harvey

United Methodists in southeast Texas improvise post-Harvey with outdoor worship and sympathize with Floridians recovering from Hurricane Irma.

On the first two Sundays in September, members of Lake Houston UMC set up folding chairs and held worship outside on the driveway. Flood damage from Hurricane Harvey has put their sanctuary out of commission for the foreseeable future.

Some at the September 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,” says Gary. 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 the Lake Houston UMC pastor. “I’m so proud of you for saying that.”

As Hurricane Irma bore down on Florida and Georgia, United Methodists who survived Hurricane Harvey’s ruinous rains have been praying for their neighbors to the east in what’s shaping us 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. The Texas Conference alone is responding to 75 churches with partial or major damage.

Though Houston grabbed most of the media attention, some of the blue-collar towns in Alicia’s district had — pound for pound — more devastation. About 80 percent of the families at the FUMC Vidor, Texas, were forced from their homes. 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. The church continued to be the church, however, serving as a crucial overnight shelter, despite losing water, power, and an operational sewage system. Additionally, a steady stream of residents with flood recovery induced injuries filed into the church’s gym to take advantage of free tetanus shots.

“We had people sleeping in the pews,” said Whitney Cappen, an active flood relief volunteer that works in children’s ministry at the church. “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.”

FUMC Vidor is transitioning its gym into a place where volunteer work crews can stay.

The Woodcrest UMC in Lumberton, Texas, housed 350 at one point, as well as pet dogs, cats, birds, ferrets and even a guinea pig and a fish. Rev. Charles Jordan 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. Some said it was like a cruise ship without the views, some said.

At the FUMC Orange, a few miles away, Rev. Keith Tilley was among those flooded out. He didn’t mince words, saying, “It looks like my house vomited on the front lawn. And every house out here is like that.” But on Saturday, he was at his church, making sure a work crew from the FUMC Carthage, could get in to take showers and prepare for an overnight stay. The Carthage team showed up as the sun was setting, after cleaning out the ruined home of an elderly member of FUMC Orange.

“It was hard, and it was hard emotionally,” shares Tonia Crittenden, one of the Carthage volunteers, “to tell 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 UMC 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, but are still missing two horses.

Rose Burnett, 84, is another southeast Texan displaced by the flooding. Even though the whole street is gutted, she smiled as she took her place with others gathering to worship on the driveway at Lake Houston UMC. For those facing Hurricane Irma’s wrath, this Harvey refugee would recommend resuming church life as soon as possible. And it’s fine with her if it has to be outdoors.

“We need this,” Rose says, gesturing at small groups of her fellow church members exchanging handshakes and hugs in bright September sunshine. “We need the fellowship and the love of each other.”

Sam Hodges, a writer for United Methodist News Service writer, lives in Dallas.