After Harvey, ‘churches have done far more than the government’
BEAUMONT, Texas — Tony Williams is tired. However, he insists he’s…
HOUSTON — The homeowner was shirtless and sweating.
He was still angry — he admitted that much — over the devastation caused by Hurricane Harvey two months ago.
But he was curious, too, about the strangers who showed up in white vans in his neighborhood and raked trash and debris from his barren yard.
“They came all the way down here for this?” he asked, intrigued that these Christians drove 465 miles to serve victims of a storm that dumped a record-breaking 52 inches of rain on the nation’s fourth-largest city.
A slight smile formed on the man’s face.
“I usually tell people from Oklahoma to head north,” he joked.
These days, though, southeast Texas can use the help — even it comes from across the Red River.
Emotional scenes of boats rescuing Lone Star State residents from flooded homes have faded from television screens. But for thousands who lost possessions and livelihoods, needs remain immense.
That’s why the Edmond Church of Christ — a 1,200-member congregation north of Oklahoma City — felt compelled to send help.
Right after the storm, the church — like countless others across the nation — took up a special contribution for Harvey relief. As of this week, the total raised from Edmond members stood at $66,675, elder and administrator John Trotter said.
But along with money, many in the congregation desired to donate time and sweat.
“We want to go to Houston to help,” campus minister Evan Burkett said students from nearby Oklahoma Christian University told him.
As Oklahoma Christian’s four-day fall break began on a recent morning, 150 Edmond members — young families, retired craftsmen and a bunch of college students — gathered to pray for safe travel.
Then they grabbed their sleeping bags and soft-sided luggage. They filled 18 white rental vans and began an all-day journey to southeast Texas. Some travelers would sleep the entire way. Others would plug their iPhone cords into the van speakers and sing Disney show tunes and 1980s pop hits for hundreds of miles.
Participants were warned ahead of time: Don’t fill up on a super-size drink if you have a tiny tank — this caravan would stop only every few hours at predetermined rest areas and at Buc-ee’s, a Texas-sized convenience store able to handle a group this large.
After two decades of organizing mission trips to a remote mountain village in Mexico and — later — to the border town of McAllen, Texas, the coordinators know how to move a faith-based army down the highway.
The drivers, all of whom completed a required safety course ahead of time, communicated via citizen band radios installed on each van. The radios helped them maneuver interstate traffic and — with a few strategically placed comedians — avoid any chance at boredom.
At the lunch stop, a special food team handled unloading giant containers of pre-made chicken-and-bacon wraps, cookies and beverages. The return trip would feature “walking tacos” made by slicing open individual bags of Doritos and dropping meat, cheese, lettuce and other ingredients inside.
“It’s in our group’s DNA to go en masse to an area that needs lots of help and to be a self-sufficient blessing and not a burden,” said Burkett, who recalled traveling to Galveston, Texas, to help after Hurricane Ike struck in 2008.
The church used a portion of its Harvey relief funds to send this group to Houston.
“The Edmond Church of Christ has put their heart and their pocketbook into this trip and said, ‘If you’re willing to give up your fall break as a student or an adult or a family, then we want to make that possible for you,’” Burkett said. “So they raised enough money to send all of us at no cost and fund a lot of the projects and still give a very generous amount as a contribution to the victims.”
The Edmond church has a special connection to Houston’s Memorial Church of Christ, which has become a disaster relief hub after Harvey.
Memorial preacher David Duncan formerly served on the ministry staff at Edmond. His daughter Emma and several other Oklahoma Christian students who grew up at Memorial joined the mission trip to their hometown.
The Houston church offered its family life center for the short-term missionaries to stage operations. Male and female students slept in separate rooms on opposite sides of the Memorial gymnasium, while local church members housed many of the older volunteers. The young people showered in a mobile disaster relief trailer provided by the College Church of Christ in Searcy, Ark.
For breakfast one morning, Rachel Burkett — the Edmond campus minister’s wife — and her crew prepared inch-thick cinnamon rolls dripping with icing, with sausage and bacon on the side. After eating, the volunteers packed brown-bag lunches such as peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches to take to their work sites. Then everybody signed up for one of a dozen-plus projects listed on a giant whiteboard in the church gym.
“It’s a big encouragement to have people come in with energy,” said Jennifer Baxter, a member of the Memorial church.
“Not everybody can muck,” Baxter added, referring to the grueling process of cleaning out flooded homes. “But everybody has different talents and things they can do.”
Two of the Edmond vans headed 60 miles east of Houston to the rural Hankamer Church of Christ, a 20-member congregation with only four men on its roll.
During Harvey, the fading yellow church building, just off a two-lane stretch of Texas Highway 61, sustained major damage.
Edmond member Lorrie Renfro joined her husband, Mo, at the gutted church, next door to a volunteer fire department. She held a paint brush in one hand and a container of white goo in the other.
“I’m spackling the walls,” explained Renfro, wearing a red Churches of Christ Disaster Response Team T-shirt. “I’m covering up all the holes … and filling in anything that needs to be filled in to make the walls look better.”
Other volunteers used screw guns to hang dry wall at the church.
Renfro became teary-eyed as she listened to minister Troy James and his wife, Fefi, describe how 5-foot-high floodwaters washed through the auditorium.
“The situation was very devastating,” Troy James told The Christian Chronicle. “The water covered the entire building, all the way through the classrooms, and we couldn’t get in there for a week. And then due to lack of manpower and brothers in that congregation, we weren’t able to clean it out.
“It just broke me down to tears to see the church had been destroyed like that,” added James, whose home also flooded. “But I knew God was going to bring it back.”
The Jameses said they thank God for the Christians from Tennessee and Oklahoma who have come to help — and for the Memorial church, which sent a check to assist with the rebuilding.
“It’s just overwhelming. God is good,” Fefi James said. “The outpouring of love they were able to show us — we’re ready to pay it forward.”
Here in southeast Texas, countless members of Churches of Christ have offered prayers, donations and volunteer labor.
“We’ve had people from Kentucky, Tennessee, Mississippi, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Texas,” said Cruz Hernandez, minister for the flooded Hidden Valley Church of Christ in Houston.
As Hernandez visited with the Chronicle, a crew from Edmond worked to repair damaged classrooms.
Others from the group fanned out across Houston — and beyond — to clean, paint, hammer and do whatever else they could to help.
“The energy and momentum of them being here gives us hope and encouragement,” said Hernandez, who preaches in English and Spanish at the 200-member Hidden Valley church. “We see people working together demonstrating their love to us, and we really appreciate it.”
Vahid Tayyar’s wife, Dina, was eight-and-a-half-months pregnant with their second child when Harvey struck.
“We had 6 feet of water in the house,” said Tayyar, whose daughter was born a few weeks ago. “We lost everything.”
But in the wake of the storm, the Iranian immigrants received help from the Memorial church to rent a temporary apartment. Meanwhile, Christians from out of town — including the Edmond group — have helped to gut their residence’s mushy remains and start refurbishing it.
“It’s just step by step. It’s like climbing a mountain,” Bobby Orr, a former missionary to Ecuador, said of making the family’s home livable again.
He and two minimum-wage workers he hired — including a flood victim who is a member of the Fifth Ward Church of Christ in Houston — hammered near the ceiling as volunteers from the Edmond group installed dry wall, washed windows and cleared debris out front.
“It means a lot,” said Tayyar, whose family has started attending the Memorial church. “These people are amazing.”
For Rebekah Kashorek, the motivation for the trip was simple.
“People close by are hurting, so it seemed like a good opportunity to help out,” said Kashorek, an 18-year-old sophomore at Oklahoma Christian.
“Close by” is relative, of course.
Kashorek is from northeastern New York state, where her father, Doug, preaches for the Plattsburgh Church of Christ. Her hometown is roughly a 24-hour drive from Oklahoma City. By that measure, a 10-hour trek to Houston — counting the stops — would seem short.
For Kashorek, the journey brought a handful of firsts: She had never been on a mission trip, never been to Texas, never eaten Tex-Mex — and “never seen anything like this,” she said of the storm damage.
“We don’t have hurricanes or tornadoes where I’m from, so this is completely new to me,” she said. “We have had minor flooding, but it was never this much destruction all at once. It’s really heartbreaking to see.”
But the experience proved heartwarming, too.
Kashorek stuffed dried brown shrubbery in a black garbage bag as she worked in the Tayyars’ yard. She later joined a few others across the street at the unidentified shirtless man’s place.
Earlier, Kashorek had gone to the flooded home of Felicitas Covarrubias, who cares for her mother, Maria Moran. Both are longtime members of the Hidden Valley church and have been living temporarily with a relative.
For Moran, who has dementia, the time away from her normal surroundings has been difficult and confusing.
“The daughter was trying to get the house back in order so the mother could move in and start to feel better,” Kashorek said. “So we painted the entire inside of her house, took out rotten wood and the doorframes, and today we painted their trimmings.”
While spending parts of two days at the house, Kashorek and the other volunteers visited with the women and got to know them.
“They cooked us a meal, and we prayed with them. They were just so grateful for everything.”
“They were so sweet,” Kashorek said. “They had us come back today. They cooked us a meal, and we prayed with them. They were just so grateful for everything.”
On the menu: hot tamales, Spanish rice and a bean soup.
Kashorek enjoyed the food — and the company.
“This has been a really good experience,” she said. “I’m definitely going to go on more mission trips in the future, whenever I get the chance.”
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