Houston Churches Go Flat Out with Flood Relief

Date Posted: 9/14/2017

By Sam Hodges, United Methodist News Service 
Photos by Kathleen Barry

These days, as the Rev. Kirbyjon Caldwell drives the streets of his native Houston, he sees mounds of flooded debris outside homes in low-income, middle-class and wealthy neighborhoods. “I’m here to tell you, all three trash loads look just the same,” said Caldwell, pastor of Houston’s Windsor Village United Methodist Church. “Harvey has been an equal opportunity destroyer.”

More than two weeks after the record rains that accompanied Hurricane Harvey in its tropical storm phase, United Methodists in Houston are still busy with basic relief work, including handing out cleaning supplies, mucking out houses and providing day care for children whose public schools aren’t yet ready to reopen.

Texas Conference Bishop Scott Jones did a live Facebook video on September 12, saying how proud he was of the United Methodist response. He also encouraged relief workers to pace themselves.  “Find time for emotional support,” he said. “Find time for Sabbath. Find time to connect with family and friends. This is not going to be something that goes quickly.” But there’s an urgency felt by the Chapelwood United Methodist Church teams helping to clean out flooded homes in Houston, their city. The volunteers are wearing masks already, and they want to pull out wet Sheetrock and other materials before the homes get even more toxic. “There are safety issues … The window is about to close,” said Dennis Crowe.

Earlier this week, Crowe led a Chapelwood crew working at the home of Dorothy Baker, 92. The teams go where needed, but she’s a fellow church member, and had to be evacuated by boat from the house where she’s lived for more than four decades. Crowe’s team used crowbars and power tools to pull out ruined Sheetrock. They also carefully packed dishes and other items for storage in the garage or second floor. “We’re packing people’s things, their keepsakes,” said Robbie Lowrey. “And you know every single thing has a story. … It’s very emotional.”

Frank Richey joined packing and hauling out boxes. He said he felt obliged to be there, given that his house escaped damage. But he also noted that he’d heard a strong sermon at Chapelwood on Sunday, on the necessity for Christians to respond to the Harvey crisis. “Sort of gave me a kick in the tail,” he said.  

A couple of streets away, another Chapelwood team worked at the home of Dan Cho. Cho said he built the home 38 years ago ago, carefully siting it three feet higher than the city required. The home had never flooded, and didn’t after Harvey until the release of water from a threatened reservoir nearby, Cho said. He didn’t have flood insurance and now, living on a fixed income, he’s doubtful he can afford to rebuild. Of the volunteers from Chapelwood and other groups that have come to help him, Cho said: “That’s the good news. They’ve been trying to comfort me.”

Indeed, Crowe said offering emotional support is as important as pulling out Sheetrock. That includes praying with affected families. “Prayer is all over this,” said Rita Stuckey, a Chapelwood member and niece by marriage of flood victim Baker. Chapelwood even has “safety care teams” who show up to support volunteers mucking out houses. Mary Fuller and Suzanne Musgrove were making the rounds on Sept. 11, offering cold wash cloths and popsicles.

“We’re also here to make contact with the homeowner and make sure they know the resources we have available at Chapelwood,” Fuller said. “We have legal assistance, FEMA questions that can be answered, insurance support, tax support.” When the floods came, Windsor Village United Methodist immediately turned itself into an emergency overnight shelter. “That’s the Christian thing to. It’s the Wesleyan thing to do. It was a slam dunk for us,” Caldwell said. The church’s shelter phase has passed, but it continues to operate a distribution center for flood victims in need.

“What they needed initially was food and water,” said Sandra Short, a leader of the church’s volunteers. “Afterward, clothing and personal hygiene items. Later on, as they could get back in their houses, they needed cleaning supplies.” Short has worked at the church all but one day since the floods hit. “Missed one day because I have a new grandchild,” she said. “I had my `Nana’ day on Friday.’”

For Windsor Village, as for Chapelwood, providing emotional and spiritual support to victims has been a priority. “We were able to love on them and make them feel that, even though they were going through a difficult time, we were with them,” said Rhonda Robertson, volunteer coordinator.

Houston’s Westbury United Methodist Church is another that has sent teams to muck out houses. It too is distributing supplies to victims. But when Houston public schools closed because of the flooding, Westbury also provided supervised care for children. “We threw together what we call Camp Harvey, because it’s impossible to take care of your house when there are kids around,” said the Rev. Danny Yang, pastor.

Yang knows, since he too was flooded out, and depended on 13-year-old church member and Camp Harvey volunteer Zamora Contreras to look after his baby daughter.
Most Houston schools resumed this week, but Kolter Elementary, a neighbor of Westbury, is still out due to flood damage. So Camp Harvey continues.
Katy Sabayrac, director of family ministries for Westbury, acknowledged worrying about whether there would be enough volunteers. So far, there have been.
“Every day, I’m like, `All right, we can make it today,’” she said.

Volunteers from Westbury, Chapelwood and Windsor Village all noted the support they’d received from out-of-town churches, and even from out of state. Two young women from Chicago used airline passes to get to Windsor Village, presenting the church with suitcases full of supplies.

Windsor Village also received for flood relief the Sunday offering of a Florida church that later was in Hurricane Irma’s path. Caldwell said he would be checking on whether that church is now in need. If it is? “We’re going to send that offering back to them, with some interest.”

Sam Hodges, a writer for United Methodist News Service writer, lives in Dallas. Contact him at (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org