Galveston Church loses power but still offers shelter, food to vulnerable unhoused population

Date Posted: 2/20/2021

 
Brown (front) and Christian Catalan of the Gastrochurch ministry prepare a meal in the kitchen at Galveston (Texas) Central Church. Photo by Mike DuBose, UM News.

By Lindsay Peyton
 
When forecasts warned of a prolonged period of freezing weather, Galveston Central Church staff members began to brainstorm. By Friday, Feb. 12, they decided to open as a shelter. Before long, however, the congregation itself was without power. Neither ice, snow, rain and lack of electricity and water could deter the church from helping neighbors in need.
 
Pastor Michael Gienger said the decision to become a shelter was solidified after a conversation with The Salvation Army. “They had 62 beds available, and we knew there would be way more than 62 people out there,” he explained. “We needed to do something.”
 
Chad Smith, the church’s Director of Youth Ministries, also heads Galveston County Continuum of Care Council (Galveston CoCare), a nonprofit that connects organizations to provide long-term care to those in need.
 
With Galveston CoCare’s network, the church was connected with the Galveston Food Bank, Red Cross, Salvation Army and others by Saturday afternoon. “We had all the supplies we needed, and the volunteers signed up,” Gienger said.


The Rev. Michael Gienger (left) helps Danny Thomas with his laundry at Galveston (Texas) Central Church. The United Methodist church opens its doors to community members, many of whom are experiencing homelessness. The church provides a safe space and a variety of services, including internet access, meals, showers and laundry facilities. Photo by Mike DuBose, UM News. 

Galveston Central Church serves Galveston’s unhoused population year-round. The congregation transforms into a kitchen, bicycle repair shop, laundromat and shower facility every week. “They know this is a safe place to come,” Gienger said.

On Sunday morning, Feb. 14, the congregation opened, as it always does to provide meals and showers.
 
“We started telling people then that we’d be open overnight,” Pastor Julia Riley said. “The word got out.”
 
Before long, guests began arriving, prepared to stay the night. As other shelters filled, more came to Central. Even police officers dropped off people at the congregation.



The church followed The Salvation Army protocol to maintain safety during COVID-19. Inside the building, masks are worn and social distancing is practiced. The cots are spaced out appropriately. There are hand sanitizer stations set-up throughout the building.
 
“We’re doing the best we can in a terrible situation,” Gienger said.
 
Then, Galveston Central lost power, around 2 a.m. Monday, Feb. 15. On Tuesday, afternoon the electricity was restored, but by evening, it went out again.
 
Extra blankets, originally planned to distribute to individuals outside the shelter, suddenly instead were needed now to help maintain warmth in the congregation.
 
On Wednesday morning, Galveston Central lost water. Volunteers filled buckets of water to keep toilets flushing.
 
The gas stove and oven became a Godsend, Gienger said. Even without power, guests were provided three hot meals a day and snacks. In addition, individuals not spending the night at church can show up for food.
 


About 60 people go to the church for a meal, while between 40 and 50 stay overnight. “We’re not saying no to people,” Gienger said. “It’s a crisis within a crisis. It’s life or death. People can freeze to death.”
 
The power is back on at Galveston Central Church, and plans are to keep the shelter open until Friday, Feb. 19.. The water is still at a trickle.
 
The vision for building a community at the church, where all are welcome, regardless of socioeconomic status, has endured even during this challenging time. Pastor Riley explained that a distinction between who is served and who is serving is blurred intentionally.
 
In the kitchen, housed and unhoused residents cook together. They clean and maintain the church. New guests show up, and the ones who have been there a year show them around and help them navigate the building.  
 
“We’ve seen people step up and take ownership. It’s been beautiful,” Riley said. “Everyone there is keeping this thing running.”
 

Regular volunteer Scott Colon (left) offers coffee to Randall Wood in the kitchen at Galveston (Texas) Central Church. The United Methodist church opens its doors to community members, many of whom are experiencing homelessness. The church provides a safe space and a variety of services, including internet access, meals, showers and laundry facilities. Photo by Mike DuBose, UM News. 

Gienger said that in many ways, the winter storm has been worse than a hurricane. The freezing weather has also exposed flaws in the infrastructure. “How do we make sure this never happens again? There’s a lot of work to do,” Gienger said.
 
For many, he explained, this week has been a discomfort or a trial. For the unhoused population, however, this is typical. “For many folks, this is their common experience every day,” Gienger said.
 
As a church, they are pushing for change and hoping others join in, creating more equitable housing.
 
“How do we care for the most marginalized and vulnerable among us?” Gienger asks. “This is an ongoing crisis with no end in sight. And hopefully, this will be eye opening.”