The floodwaters of Hurricane Harvey washed away the dividing lines of race, religion, and class, revealing character and the basic decency at the core of what it means to be human. What makes Houston’s heart beat most truly is faith in God…
Hurricane Harvey revealed the huge heart of Houston through the biggest natural disaster in the nation’s history. These Texans didn’t wait for the government to rescue them or tell them what to do. In fact, the Governor, Mayor, and Chief of Police were grateful for citizen initiatives, because there was no way they could meet more than a fraction of the needs. One trillion gallons of water made rivers out of Houston’s streets, churning up a wicked current. To the wiseacres who pontificated on television that Houston’s troubles came from the lack of zoning or sufficient planning, let me say this: If you dump fifty-one inches of rain in three days on any city in the world, it will most certainly flood. That’s more rainfall than Houston receives in an average year. Fortunately, the epic deluge didn’t dampen the courage of people who grabbed anything that would float and plunged in to rescue people. Fishing boats, fan boats, kayaks, jet skis, and canoes filled the street rivers in a Texan version of Dunkirk. The Cajun Navy was so moved by Houston’s response to Katrina that they came over from Louisiana to help out during Harvey, before returning home to take care of their own people. Volunteers have been mucking out houses and ripping out wet drywall all over the region ever since the rain stopped. Although the property damage is staggering, with estimates reaching into the hundreds of billions of dollars, Hurricane Harvey revealed things about Houston that are much more valuable than our property. Anyone who has watched this city’s response to Harvey knows that Houston has heart. But one thing you might not have noticed is how the floodwaters washed away the dividing lines of race, religion, and class, revealing character and the basic decency at the core of what it means to be human. What makes Houston’s heart beat most truly is faith in God.
This is the part of Houston’s story that the national news media overlooked. I recognize the blind spots, having spent a season of my life some years ago as a television reporter for PBS in Europe. Before my awakening of faith, I didn’t think to look beyond economic, political, and human interest stories either, nor would I have thought to look for grassroots faith-based organizations. But twenty years in the Christian non-profit realm taught me that some of the most interesting and effective work takes place right here, at the street level, as people of faith lift the afflicted to their feet and restore their dignity, loving them into wholeness. That is exactly what has been going on in the wake of Harvey’s devastation.
Take Jim “Mattress Mack” McIngvale, the owner of Gallery Furniture. While the rain was still pummeling Houston, Mattress Mack sent out his furniture trucks to rescue people stranded in the flooding and bring them to his Gallery Furniture showrooms. Why on earth would the owner of a furniture store invite wet, muddy people off the streets, or members of the National Guard deployed to Houston, and let them eat, sleep, and sprawl on several millions of dollars’ worth of furniture? “My faith defines me, it’s who I am,” explained Mattress Mack. “How could I let my people drown? I’ve got the space, the beds, and plenty of food for them right here.“ When asked if he was worried about the wear and tear on his inventory, he shrugged and said, “I don’t care about the money.” A life-long Catholic generous to Houston’s nonprofit sector, Mattress Mack has a Texas-sized heart. The rapper, Chamillionaire, joined forces with him to rally volunteers and raise donations to help Harvey’s victims. Chamillionaire, a young, hip African-American rapper, could not look more different from the sixty-six-year-old, white, decidedly un-hip Jim McIngvale, but the media event they staged on Labor Day from the Gallery Furniture store showed their two hearts beating in perfect unison. Together, they asked for donations for flood relief and invited Houstonians to bring water and cleaning supplies to the Gallery Furniture showrooms, which became hubs to distribute materials to clean up teams mucking out houses throughout Houston.
Of the 6.8 million people in the greater Houston area, the death toll now includes at least sixty due to Harvey. One of the first fatalities was that of Sgt. Steve Perez, who drowned in his police car trying to get to work in the early hours of August 29. His wife had begged him not to go, but the veteran officer who had served thirty-four years with the police department replied, “We’ve got work to do.” He spent two-and-a-half hours crisscrossing the city, trying to find a way to get to headquarters for his early morning shift. Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo choked back tears at the press conference as he told the story of this man’s devotion. Chief Acevedo talked to Sgt. Perez’s widow, Cheryl, after her husband’s body was found. He said he was “heartened to learn that his family has faith in God, and where there is faith, there is hope in eternal life.” Remember, this is a press conference with reporters from the national media. Chief Acevedo didn’t even blink when he said this, it was so natural, pitch-perfect in unvarnished sincerity. Houston’s mayor, Sylvester Turner, took the mike to add, “our hearts are saddened. We grieve with this family. We extend to them our prayers from the entire Houston community.” Here stood two of Houston’s leaders, the Mayor and the Chief of Police, an African-American and a Latino, whose hearts beat in unison in their faith in God. Their words were no fake gloss for the cameras. They came from raw, hurting hearts tested by fire and water. I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised to see that the CNN version of this press conference posted online cut Chief Acevedo’s and Mayor Turner’s references to faith. That cut reveals blindness to an important part of Houston’s story. It’s like cutting the gods out of Homer’s Iliad. You really don’t get what’s going on here, do you? Don’t you see this is where the visible and invisible realms converge! The temporal and the eternal?
Faith motivated many of the first-responders throughout the community, who formed spontaneous human chains to rescue people from Harvey’s floodwaters. When the Editor of this journal, Stephen Klugewicz, and his wife Emily Stelzer (my colleague on the faculty of Houston Baptist University) saw the water rising, at first they saw no reason for concern. But when their street swelled into a river, the couple gratefully accepted the offer to leave their one-story home to stay with neighbors with two floors. As the waters continued to rise, another colleague from the university called someone at her church, who in turn knew the local Game Warden. He had a “fan boat” with a flat bottom and motor above the water line, which made it safer to traverse the submerged terrain of automobiles, mailboxes, and other hidden obstacles in what appeared to be rivers, but most decidedly were not. The Game Warden had been given a street name but not a house number, so he was going door to door, in search of a pregnant lady with a baby, while having to turn down other people equally desperate to leave their flooding houses. When he finally found Drs. Klugewicz and Stelzer, they boarded with their nine-month-old son Simon huddled inside his mother’s jacket, carrying one small suitcase and a very wet dog. As the boat headed out, above the sound of the engine they could just make out the panicked cries of people begging to be picked up. For the first time, Drs. Klugewicz and Stelzer realized that these neighbors could conceivably die in the flooding. At this realization, the typically even-keeled Dr. Stelzer burst into tears. Seeing this, the policeman seated next to the boat’s driver got up and offered Dr. Klugewicz his seat to allow him to sit next to his wife and comfort her, while he crouched uncomfortably for the remainder of their journey. This gesture spoke volumes.
Once on land, Drs. Klugewicz and Stelzer stood blinking in the rain after their rescue boat headed out to pick up others, wondering what to do next. It dawned on them that there was no seamless interlocking chain of services, just spontaneous actions of individual people. Eventually, two men in an SUV showed up and offered to take them to a shelter in a high school in Rosenberg. During the half-hour ride, Drs. Klugewicz and Stelzer learned that these young men had come to rescue family members, but when they couldn’t locate them decided to stay and help other people. Along the way, they stopped at a convenience store and one of the men took a twenty-dollar bill out of his own wallet and handed it to Dr. Klugewicz so he could get provisions. They were grateful to finally arrive at the impromptu shelter in Rosenberg High School, but it was a zoo, overflowing with people and pets. Drs. Klugewicz and Stelzer, still carrying baby Simon and their dog, were grateful to be moved to a nearby middle school that was less overcrowded. In the meantime, a friend of a friend had found a couple that lived nearby that was willing to pick them up and take them into their home. This cheery, warm-hearted couple fed them home-cooked comfort food and invited them to share a family rosary that night. Reflecting on the day, Dr. Klugewicz said, “We have seen the face of Jesus many times today.”
Dr. Klugewicz recounted the improbable linkage of relationships, faiths, and ethnicities in their rescue: He is Catholic, his wife is Lutheran, both are white. She teaches at an ethnically diverse Baptist university, from which her colleague contacted a friend at her church, who in turn knew the Game Warden, who found them at the home of their African-American neighbors. The two young men who volunteered to drive them were Muslim, while the couple in whose home they stayed is Catholic. And so it was all over the region. There were no more hyphenated Americans in Houston during Harvey. People were not primarily Mexican-Americans, African-Americans, Vietnamese-Americans or Nigerian-Americans, nor were they identifiable as Baptists, Presbyterians, Lutherans or Catholics. What connected people became much more important than what divided them, as one soul reached out to help another, co-heirs of the Kingdom of God.
While the news coverage focused on the big convention centers taking in flood victims—nearly 10,000 in the George R. Brown Center at its peak—there were hundreds of smaller shelters that sprang up spontaneously all over the city in churches helping their neighbors. Kirbyjon and Suzette Caldwell opened the doors of their Kingdom Builders Center in south Houston. The congregation they pastor comes from all over the greater Houston region, but the Caldwells offered refuge to waterlogged neighborhood people in the Great Room of the Kingdom Builders Center. World-ranked tennis player Zina Garrison kept children entertained learning how to play tennis with Nerf balls. Local restaurants delivered everything from donuts and Egg McMuffins in the morning to spaghetti, chicken, and barbecue for lunch and dinner, while members of their church dropped off clothes, toiletries, diapers, and baby formula. They shipped supplies to Port Arthur and Beaumont, which were even harder hit by Harvey. Mrs. Caldwell, the founder of the Prayer Institute, led people in prayer both on the premises and on conference calls throughout the storm.
Doug Stringer is the founder of Somebody Cares, which has been delivering emergency supplies here and across the country for years, wherever disaster hits. Before Harvey made landfall, Mr. Stringer had pre-staged supplies in collaborating churches and organizations, which were poised to spring into action as soon as the hurricane made landfall. His organization brought in Mercy Chefs from Virginia to prepare and serve 5,000 hot meals a day to first-responders. Daily conference calls with collaborating partners in nearby Baytown, League City, Alvin, Katy, and Kingwood provided the coordination to connect resources to needs, despite the difficulty of moving through the submerged streets. Mr. Stringer affirms the beauty that Harvey revealed here: “In the middle of a polarized nation, the real America is showing up here in Houston—the America that crosses all dividing lines because of faith.”
The nation tends not to take much notice of Houston. It boggles most people’s minds to learn how BIG this city is, not only in population—the fourth-largest city in the U.S.—but geographically. In the absence of natural barriers like rivers or mountains, Houston sprawls in all directions for 600 square miles. It also surprises a lot of people to learn that Houston is one of the most ethnically diverse cities, often tying with New York and Los Angeles for first-place. All the nations of the world are here: a large and thriving Vietnamese community, the largest population of Nigerians outside Nigeria, Koreans, Filipinos, Latin Americans, Central Americans, Eastern Europeans, Middle-Easterners, Chinese, and Australians, as well as people from throughout the United States and Canada. People come here to work in the energy industry, in the medical centers, to teach at the universities, to launch businesses and restaurants. People come here to make it big, then they may go bust, and then they pick themselves up to start over again. There is an entrepreneurial spirit in the air that has been here since the first settlers, who wrestled with alligators and mosquitoes as big as grasshoppers to make this land habitable. What kind of people wanted to live in a place like this in the first place? People with perseverance, that’s what kind!
Houston is also the buckle of the Bible Belt. People pray here, not just in their prayer closets. It is not unusual to see people bow their heads in restaurants to ask a blessing together before meals. While all faiths are practiced here, part of the ease of interaction in the city is a product of the predominant Christian culture. The private sector flourishes here in for-profit and non-profit realms, and there isn’t a human need that someone hasn’t thought to address. Houston has well-developed civic muscle in its non-profits with scores of effective faith-based organizations and charities supported by a generous donors, many of whom are followers of Christ who see charitable giving as part of their Christian duty. The leaders of these organizations make an effort to collaborate, so when a disaster strikes nobody waits around to be told what to do. From the corner office suites to the grassroots workers, people roll up their sleeves and get to work. Volunteering is part of Houston’s DNA. That’s why there were so many mountains of clothes and thousands of volunteers lined up at all the shelters had to be turned away. Houstonians want to help, because that’s what people of true faith do. They put it into practice.
Some of my students in the Honors College at Houston Baptist University joined forces with Phil Tallon and Micah Snell, professors who strapped on tool belts to help flooded professors, student families, and neighbors muck out their houses. The students were quick to see that this was another kind of mission trip, a chance to serve, without leaving the country. They got to experience the giddy satisfaction of demolition and the slithery mess of mud, mold, and slime. They experienced the tragedy of an older woman in denial about her losses, puttering in the garden, too overwhelmed to think where to begin. She waved the group off the first day they were in the neighborhood, but on the second day, they asked more persistently, offering to help her start sorting out dry belongings from everything else ruined in the water. Julia Jimenez said it was poignant to see the woman pulling photographs from sopping old albums, sharing stories about each of the children and events. “She was losing almost all her photos as she pulled them out for the last time. In a way the woman made us her photo album, the repository of her memories.”
There is nothing like a Category Four hurricane to force you to think about what really matters. If you can only save a few things in your house, what do you save? Every hurricane that comes here, my list gets shorter and shorter. Now I only want to save the things that can’t be replaced: family photographs; original art work; favorite books out of print. It’s a good exercise in soul-cleaning to think hard about what really matters. Letting go of material possessions can be liberating. It’s just stuff, I keep reminding myself, it’s just stuff.
Now the nation’s eyes have turned to watch Hurricane Irma pummeling Florida, and our hearts go out to the hurricane’s victims. We are nowhere near recovery here, with too many homes still unreachable and swaths of Houston still underwater. Mosquitoes and mold are rampant. Traffic was already congested here, but with sections of major thoroughfares still impassable, commute times that were half an hour can now take three to five times as long. Recovery here will not be a sprint, but a marathon. It will take years. But I am convinced that with God’s grace, the good hearts and can-do attitude in Houston will be enough. The real test will be months from now, after the excitement has died down but the messy part of rebuilding wrecked roads and homes drags on. The acid test will come long after the crisis. Pray that Houston keeps the faith.
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