In a neighborhood adjacent to George Bush Park, west of downtown Houston, an uncontrolled release of reservoir water in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey quickly turned the streets into rivers, pinning a family with small children up against their driveway Tuesday.
With no first responders in sight, the mother berated herself, fearing she had waited too long to decide to evacuate.
Suddenly, a boat floated up her driveway. It was not the fire department or National Guard or even the Cajun Navy.
At the helm was Pastor Carlos Pleitez of Ministerio Internacional Poder y Milagros, the International Ministry of Power and Miracles.
“It was an angel,” she said. “They just showed up at the perfect time.”
In tears as she sat in the back of the boat, she acknowledged in a live interview with Fox News reporter Jeff Flock that she didn’t expect to be thrust into a life-or-death emergency.
“I didn’t know who to call. I didn’t know if it was going to be too late,” she said.
Flock observed that first responders are “doing a fabulous job,” but with virtually every part of America’s fourth largest city affected by what is already being described as the nation’s worst natural disaster, “there are not enough of them.”
Along with local first-responders and major organizations such as the Red Cross, 20 states have sent in National Guard units, and FEMA has called in rescue units from major U.S. cities. Texas has called out all 12,000 members of its National Guard.
But the scope of the disaster, which has yet to be fully realized, requires all hands on deck, and local churches and Christian ministries are well positioned to fill in the gaps to meet practical needs as well as provide spiritual and emotional care.
Hurricane Harvey hit Southeast Texas Aug. 25 as a Category 4 storm with sustained winds of 130 mph. But for Houston in particular, it’s the now downgraded but extremely slow-moving tropical storm – which could bring as much as 50 inches to some areas before it’s done this week – that is causing an unfolding catastrophe.
Christianity Today magazine noted that once the storm is over and the major work begins, churches are better positioned immediately than FEMA and other national groups because they are already on the ground. A “faith-based FEMA,” the National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster represents more than 50 denominational relief agencies and secular charities.
The Houston Chronicle observed Tuesday: “The bad is literally everywhere, from highways that blocked movement of even service crews and would-be rescuers to the prospect of additional flooding for communities that have so far been lightly touched.
Houston and its neighbors, the paper said, ‘have shown plenty of their famed resilience. But it’s hard to deny that Harvey has inspired an unprecedented fear.”
Amid the fear, nevertheless, are stories of courage and selflessness.
Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo choked up as he recounted how Sgt. Steve Perez – a veteran of more than three decades on the force – “laid down his life,” drowning in his car in a flooded underpass after venturing out to work at 4 a.m. Sunday morning in treacherous conditions.
Acevedo, describing Perez as a “sweet, gentle public servant” and “a man of faith,” told reporters how he gave the news to Perez’s wife earlier Tuesday.
Noting she was a “woman of faith,” the police chief asked her: “If the Lord was going to take him today, how do you think he would want to go? Lying in bed, watching the disaster, or doing what he has done for 34 years?”
Acevedo said the “smile that overcame that woman’s face, his beautiful wife, said it all.”
“If it was his turn to go, she said, this is how he would have wanted to go.”
The evangelical relief and development organization Samaritan’s Purse, led by Franklin Graham, has set up a volunteer base in Victoria, south of Houston, and will have four more bases, one in Rockport/Portland, another in Galveston/Santa Fe and two in Houston, once the water recedes.
Five tractor trailers full of emergency supplies are on the way, and Graham is calling for as many as 1,000 volunteers a day.
But he says volunteers will be needed for the next year as well.
Chandler Saylors, assistant program manager for U.S. disaster relief for Samaritan’s Purse, told WND the group coordinates with local churches and other established contacts in the area to decide where to start its work.
She anticipates volunteers coming from all over the United States.
Samaritan’s Purse has a Web page for teams of up to 15 people to apply to volunteer. The jobs included tearing out damaged drywall, removing flooring, tarping roofs and clearing debris.
It assigns volunteers to individual homeowners, who are offered spiritual and emotional encouragement. A team of chaplains from the Billy Graham Association provide pastoral help.
“My heart continues to be heavy for the good people of South Texas as they begin to deal with the devastation caused by Hurricane Harvey – and the flood waters are still rising in many areas,” said Graham.
He said Samaritan’s Purse will move into the hardest hit areas as soon as it is given “the all-clear” by the state authorities.
“We hope that over the next few months there will be thousands of volunteers who will want to come and help those whose homes have been damaged by this destructive storm,” he said.
President Trump and several members of his Cabinet visited Corpus Christi and Austin Tuesday to assess the need and coordinate federal relief, promising Washington is in it for the long-haul.
In the small town of Refugio, Texas, about 10 miles from the coast, Joy Ministries’ church opened its doors to provide shelter to about 40 refugees after the hurricane hit Friday evening.
Pastor Joel Garcia, whose church building was built to withstand hurricanes, told the Dallas Morning News he set up the shelter because he knew people would have nowhere to go.
“There was a monster out there last night,” Garcia said. “We’re fortunate people didn’t die last night.”
In Houston, evangelist and author Nabeel Qureshi, who has chronicled his battle with stage 4 stomach cancer over the past year through a video blog and Facebook, posted a video Sunday in which he asked for prayer as rising floodwaters on his street cut him off from the hospital and his supply of nutrients for his feeding tube.
“Dire request for prayer: this is our front yard, the flooding here has been overwhelming,” he wrote. “We’ve lost power, I have no way of getting back to the hospital and only a few days worth of formula for my tube feeds. Our garage is taking water, but praise God our house itself is dry for now. Please pray for us, for Houston, and for God’s mercy on all those who are being devastated by Harvey.”
He later reported he was evacuated to the hospital, though his family remained at home.
Qureshi, a convert from Ahmadiyya Islam, until recently was a speaker with Ravi Zacharias International Ministries. He’s the author of “Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus: A Devout Muslim Encounters Christianity,” “Answering Jihad: A Better Way Forward” and “No God But One – Allah or Jesus.”
WBMA-TV in Birmingham, Alabama, reported Alabama’s largest church is already on the ground in Texas in response to Harvey.
Church of the Highlands Pastor Dino Rizzo left for Texas to work on the plan to help.
“Every one of us at Church of the Highlands feels the responsibility to pray, to give and to go,” said Schranz. “So we don’t want to sit back and feel we’ve done something because we said a prayer or we even gave money toward helping someone. We actually want to go.”
Christianity Today reported that in Houston, which has more megachurches than any U.S. city, most Sunday services were canceled.
Gregg Matte, pastor at Houston’s First Baptist, checked in with members of his congregation over the weekend, including elderly evacuees.
“I don’t know that I’ve ever prayed like that, like I prayed today, just asking God to have mercy on us,” Matte said in a Facebook video Sunday evening. “Just make the rain stop.”
Christianity Today said clergymen were featured in two viral news reports Sunday. A preacher checked submerged cars for trapped drivers, and a priest tried to paddle his way to Mass at Houston’s Catholic Charismatic Center.
Many churches on higher ground have served as temporary shelters or meeting points for evacuees and others provided supplies for area shelters.
Celebrity pastor Joel Osteen, whose Lakewood Church meets in a 16,800-seat arena that formerly was home to the Houston Rockets NBA team, announced Tuesday his facility was open for shelter after critics seized on his Facebook post Sunday morning indicating the church was “inaccessible due to severe flooding” and congregants and others should seek shelter elsewhere.
As criticism grew on social media, with contested claims that the church had closed its doors but was not actually flooded, Osteen issued a statement through ABC News saying the church was “prepared to house people once shelters reach capacity.”
“We have never closed our doors. We will continue to be a distribution center for those in need,” the statement said.
Osteen also said Lakewood “will be a value to the community in the aftermath of this storm in helping our fellow citizens rebuild their lives.”
Christianity Today noted churches serving as unofficial shelters can quickly find themselves overwhelmed by demand and logistics.
The Washington Post reported that after several members tweeted Sunday that First Baptist Church North Houston had opened its doors to stranded residents, the building ended up with 300 evacuees.
But there was not enough food, and the building had no working toilets, due to the flood.
“It’s frustrating, but I’m just relying on God to fulfill his promises to us,” youth pastor David McDougle told the Post. “We’re all praying.”
Christianity Today said nine churches in the Houston area served as temporary shelters for the city until survivors could be moved safely to other venues, such as the downtown George R. Brown Convention Center, where officials are coordinating relief efforts.
A former Associated Press reporter who recounted her rescue in a first-person story for the newswire, ended up finding refuge in a church.
She and her family were saved, in water over her head, by a boat arranged by a rabbi.
She wrote: “At 11:30 p.m. Sunday, as I was about to go to sleep at the church, my phone rang.
“It was the Houston Fire Department, calling to ask if we had gotten to dry ground – 16 hours after I had first called for help.”