Houston Churches help neighbors recover & offer safe haven after explosion
By Lindsay Peyton
When a Watson Grinding and Manufacturing building exploded in northwest Houston early in the morning on Friday, Jan. 24, hundreds of nearby homes and businesses were damaged. Two deaths were reported, 18 individuals headed to the emergency room and about 48 residents in the neighborhood sought shelter. Area UMC churches were ready to help. Fairbanks UMC served as a Red Cross shelter, and The Restoration Team, formed by four Houston area UMC churches — Chapelwood, St. Paul’s, Westbury and St. Luke’s – went to work helping with neighbors’ homes.
The Restoration Team’s director Trevor Barnett woke up at 4:24 a.m. when the blast sounded and flung open his backdoor. He had no idea what happened. “I went outside and saw a plume of smoke,” he said.
After inspecting his home and only finding minor damage, he drove to the front of the neighborhood to learn more. Around that time, his brother, an officer with the Houston Police Department called to ask if he was okay. He explained that other officers in the neighborhood were wearing gas masks.
“He told us that we might want to evacuate the neighborhood,” Barnett recalled. “We headed to our in-laws for a while and went back around 8:30 a.m.”
As soon as he returned home, he checked on Chapelwood UMC. The church houses The Restoration Team. He explained that the nonprofit started as an effort to strategize long-term recovery after Hurricane Harvey.
Instead of relying on their individual congregations, the churches pooled their resources. At first, they helped muck, gut and clean flooded homes in West Houston.
Today, The Restoration Team, which became a separate nonprofit in 2019, rebuilds and remodels houses, helping families who are still struggling after the storm. To date, Barnett said, the organization has helped restore 220 homes.
In addition to continuing the Harvey relief effort, Barnett explained, that the organization prepares for other disasters – which is why it was ready to spring into action after the blast.
After discovering that Chapelwood UMC was not impacted by the explosion, Barnett then called other churches, asking how their congregations were affected. Then, he sent out emails to his base of volunteers, stating that The Restoration Team would host an orientation on Saturday morning.
The Restoration Team quickly assembled 90 volunteers to canvas the neighborhood and find people in need. They worked on 30 homes in the area, using 100 sheets of plywood in just a few hours.
Barnett explained that the 40 to 50 homes near the exploded building were completely destroyed. Other nearby houses were hit by the blast – as well as debris from the explosion.
“There were roofs separated from walls and foundations that shifted,” Barnett said. “All of the windows shattered. Garage doors buckled. Doors were blown from their hinges. Sheetrock was thrown off the walls and flew from the ceiling.”
In addition to repairing the physical damage, a few of the volunteers at The Restoration Team are licensed therapists who could assist with the emotional toll of the explosion. “We were able to pair them with construction crews,” Barnett said. “They’re able to listen and to be a shoulder to cry on.”
Then, Team Rubicon, an international disaster relief organization, came to Houston to continue the efforts. The Restoration Team hosted them at their facility, which was created to house out-of-town volunteers.
“What we started on Saturday, Team Rubicon took over for the next few days,” Barnett said.
The group left on Tuesday morning after the blast. Barnett explained that the Red Cross and Memorial Assistance Ministries are the ones continuing to work on disaster relief in the area.
Fairbanks UMC hosted the Red Cross and set up an overnight shelter at its 14210 Aston St location right after the explosion.
Rev. Heather Sims could hear the blast from her home but was not sure what caused it. She was sick with strep throat and did not hear the news until she got a phone call from Rev. Godfrey Hubert, who leads the Foundry’s disaster efforts and established the Hope Disaster Recovery network.
“He asked if we’d be willing to work with the Red Cross,” Sims recalled. “I said, ‘Definitely.’”
The Red Cross brought everything they needed to create an overnight shelter at the church. They brought beds, food and volunteers. At first, the organization had two shelters in the area but then streamlined down to the one at the church.
“A lot of people went to stay with friends and family,” Sims said. “We wanted to be there for those who couldn’t.”
The shelter closed about a week after the blast. Sims was inspired by her congregation’s generosity. “Fairbanks UMC has loving people and space, and they were willing to offer everything they have,” she said. “I loved seeing people here rise up. It was truly neighbors helping neighbors.”
After all, Sims said, a church should be a safe haven in the community. “Without any questions, the people at Fairbanks UMC opened up their church doors,” she said. “It was beautiful.”
Barnett agreed that the church is called to help in times of disaster. “In Houston, and really everywhere, we are called as the Church to be the caring and loving presence of God,” he said. “God is love. And if we’re not, then what are we doing?”