Churches reach out to community in need despite losses
By Rick Jones | Presbyterian News Service
CORPUS CHRISTI – It’s a sunny day, and a light breeze blows across Port Aransas, Texas, a small island near Corpus Christi. It’s a stark difference to the weather two week ago when Hurricane Harvey crashed into the community.
On Thursday, leaders of Presbyterian Disaster Assistance and Mission Presbytery got their first look at Harvey’s wrath. Streets are still littered with debris from the powerful storm. Some homeowners have been able to clear out old carpeting, furniture and appliances. The roofs have been ripped off several businesses, power lines are down, and tangled metal that used to be an awning or a fence now litter fields and streets.
At the Community Presbyterian Church pastored by the Rev. Steve Shullanberger, volunteers have already ripped up water-soaked carpeting while dirt and mold cover the floors, walls and ceilings. The sanctuary, classrooms and fellowship center are unusable. A multi-faith food pantry at the church is in ruins.
“A huge, metal container landed between our church building and two palm trees, just inches from the building,” said Shullanberger. “I don’t know how that could have happened without causing more damage.”
On the back of the property, a fishing boat sits in the middle of the church yard, and downed power line are draped across the church parking lot. There is no electricity, and debris and a damp stench fill the sanctuary, office and education facility.
“There are buildings in this community that are no more than shells. The windows are gone and everything on the inside has been destroyed. It looks like a big garbage dump,” said Shullanberger. “There are boats where boats should not be. I’ve lived in communities hit by tornadoes and strong storms but nothing like this.”
Shullanberger said the first 10 days were very difficult, and his congregation is struggling to connect and get power and phone service. The lack of telephone service and limited transportation have made it difficult for him to reach all his members.
Approximately 30 miles to the northeast is the community of Taft. Cleanup continues in the small city, but Clayton and Cheryl Brockman, ruling elders at First Presbyterian Church, said it could have been worse.
“We got off easy overall. We’re going to have to have the carpet taken out after the storm blew out the stained glass window in the balcony,” said Clayton. “But considering the problems in other towns, we’re lucky.”
First Presbyterian has developed a strong interfaith partnership with Catholic, Baptist and Methodist churches in the area. Working together, Clayton said they’ve been able to provide community services to residents in need.
“We’ve hosted volunteers and given out more than 200,000 pounds of food in the past two weeks because we have the organization to do it,” said Cheryl Brockman. “We don’t compete, we collaborate.”
Clayton said it will be years before Taft completely recovers. Despite the increase in the mosquito population, he added that the cooler weather has provided much needed relief the past few days.
While donations of food and cleaning supplies are needed, Brockman asked that people refrain from donating used clothes.
“We’re getting a lot of clothes we don’t need including parkas with large holes and even prom dresses. We’ve even had a truck pull up and pile used clothes in the front yard. Volunteers were up until 1:00 a.m. cleaning it up,” said Brockman. “The items are wet, unusable and take up a lot of space. We end up having to hire a crew to come and dispose of it all.”
What they could use, said Brockman, are new socks and underwear in their original packaging.
In the meantime, the small congregation is worshiping in its fellowship center with hopes of being back in the sanctuary by Christmas. “What we need are fewer mouths and more hands and feet of Christ,” he said.
Other stops included the First Presbyterian Churches of Rockport and Refugio. The latter lost the back wall of the sanctuary and a large stained glass window. There was no water damage, and electrical and running water have been restored.
“One of the things that stirred me was how varied the reactions are of the people who have been hit. We’ve seen almost A to Z in terms of responses,” said the Rev. Dr. Sallie Watson, general presbyter of Mission Presbytery. “This was not an equal opportunity storm. But we also heard as many blessings as we did disaster from people who have lived through it.”
“I’m so impressed with the level of engagement of Presbyterian communities of faith in areas impacted by disaster,” said Jim Kirk, PDA associate for national disaster response. “We’ve seen everything from opening doors for shelter to providing space for essential needs, offering prayer and support. It was very impressive.”
PDA director Rev. Dr. Laurie Kraus said she was impressed with the concern for others in times of crisis.
“Even in the midst of Harvey cleanup and with an incredibly long road of rebuilding before them, the people show compassion and concern for people in harm’s way as Irma approaches,” she said. “It shows the expansive nature of the Christian community and the sense of solidarity that binds people together. Instead of a shattering experience, its an integrating experience.”
Kraus, Kirk and Sara Lisherness, director of the church’s Compassion, Peace and Justice ministry, plan to spend the weekend meeting with the Presbytery of the New Covenant and churches in the Houston area.
Presbyterian Disaster Assistance is the emergency response and refugee program of the denomination committed to the long-term journey of recovery of communities adversely affected by a crisis or catastrophic event. It is funded by the One Great Hour of Sharing and raises designated funds for responding to specific disasters.
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