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After Ike, churches assess their future

GILCHRIST, Texas (BP)–Arlis and Wanda Russell made a list of the folks who were present for the last service of their home church, knowing it might be the only membership roll that exists.

On a Wednesday night, Sept. 10, the Russells were among several dozen folks who gathered at First Baptist Church of Gilchrist, Texas, to hear a visiting evangelist preach on dealing with the storms of life during the last evening of a three-day revival.

Three days later, Hurricane Ike wiped out the community of Gilchrist on the Bolivar Peninsula. Reporters from aircraft described the scene as apocalyptic; according to National Geodetic Survey images, the 1,000 structures that stood in the town of Gilchrist have been reduced to just five, though no deaths were reported in the earliest stage of rescue efforts.

“It’s rare to see a town so completely destroyed by a hurricane, to the point where you can’t even see the wreckage,” meteorologist Jeff Masters said.

While the neighboring towns of Crystal Beach and High Island also were mostly destroyed, they were not swept clean of structures and wreckage, Masters said. “Not only did Gilchrist suffer a head-on assault by Ike’s direct storm surge of 14-plus feet, topped by 20-foot-high battering waves, the town also suffered a reverse surge once the hurricane passed,” he noted. Whatever was left after the first waves likely was finished off by the second surge, including First Baptist of Gilchrist.

“It’s not just whether the church is going to have a mission, but whether there’s going to be a church,” said Mike Smith, director of minister/church relations for the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention.

Pastor L.C. Roots lost his home and the church he served but stays in contact with folks like the Russells as he moves from one temporary home to the next.

“We’ve gotten in touch with a few folks but it’s been really difficult trying to locate everybody,” Arlis Russell told the SBTC’s TEXAN newsjournal. “The membership records are all gone.”

Russell and his wife looked over the list they had made, believing most evacuated before the storm hit.

Texas evangelist Steve Brumbelow, in keeping his pledge to preach a revival every year for the coastal congregation, was used to competing with tropical weather conditions, with most of the Gilchrist meetings held during of September.

“We were monitoring the storm during the course of the week,” Brumbelow recounted, “and until Wednesday evening it appeared to be going south.”

Preaching the last sermon in the church before the water and wind swept the building from its foundation remains on Brumbelow’s mind.

“They lost everything they had,” he said. “Every member of that church that lived on the peninsula lost a house.”

Although First Baptist was a small congregation in a heavily traveled tourist area, Brumbelow said Roots has been a faithful witness well beyond the doors of the church building.

“They’re just sweet people and I love and appreciate them. They were never going to be a big church, but they had a tremendous ministry to tourists,” Brumbelow said.

Members from the pastor-less church of First Baptist in Crystal Beach were among those present for the final revival service.

Russell recalled seeing Crystal Beach resident Dee Ann Sherman on CNN recounting how she weathered the storm in the attic of her beachfront home.

“I held on to the rafters up in the attic and prayed and prayed and prayed that if God would just save our lives…. God’s the only thing that saved us,” she said, describing the terror they experienced looking down through a hole in the ceiling and watching the ocean’s force knock the walls out.

The Russells recalled how Brumbelow turned to a different text each night of the revival to illustrate that God offers hope in the midst of various storms, such as failure, unhappiness, depression, brokenness and fear. From Philippians 3:13-14, he urged those in attendance to forget those things that are behind and press on.

It’s a perspective that Smith knows the area churches will need in the months and even years ahead.

“We have churches that have to decide whether they even want to rebuild or not,” Smith said. “It’s not just a few trees down or simply repair work. This is a matter of reassessing our purpose and mission in being there.”

Elsewhere along the Texas coast, pastor Bob Gibson of San Leon Community Church led the church in distributing food to residents who remained and, aided by First Baptist Church of Hempstead’s mud-out crew, in tackling the damage from Ike’s surge in order for the church to house displaced residents,.

At Island Community Church, the structure is still standing but water gutted the interior. Pastor Jim Booth anticipates rebuilding, Smith said.

Storm-damaged University Baptist Church in Galveston will move into its recovery phase in a partnership with Great Hills Baptist Church in Austin.

First Baptist Church of Crystal Beach became the temporary home of an 11-year old African lioness named Shackle when its owner was unable to get off the island before Ike made landfall.

Smith met with 11 pastors during an assessment trip to the region and expects to have a broader picture of the impact on Southern Baptist congregations following a Sept. 25 emergency meeting of Galveston Baptist Association (www.gbachurches.org).

Further east, Golden Triangle Baptist Association (www.gbta.org) scheduled a special meeting Sept. 24 at First Baptist Church in Vidor to update churches on relief efforts. Nehemiah’s Vision, a regional ministry formed following the devastation of Hurricane Rita, will be involved in rebuilding efforts following Hurricane Ike as well.

SBTC Executive Director Jim Richards toured some of the affected churches, including First Baptist in Vidor, which lost its educational building when the roof was ripped off by Ike’s winds.

Despite the damage, FBC Vidor will serve as the command center for disaster relief deployments.

Several churches in Bridge City suffered major damage, including Circle Drive, with nearly four feet of water in the educational building and pews destroyed by the storm force.

Liberty Baptist took in four to five feet of water in the auditorium as well as flooding in the gymnasium. The Sept. 20 worship service was held in the parking lot. In addition to finding his house destroyed by the storm surge, pastor Bill Collier discovered a six-foot-long alligator in the backyard. Another church family rode out the storm on their roof, fighting off alligators and snakes.

Pastor Robert Boone of First Baptist Church in Bridge City lost his house in the storm as did 90 percent of the people who live in Bridge City. Carpet has been removed from the church building to prepare for flood damage cleanup.

Cove Baptist Church in Orange reported a total loss of their building, with pews left in a swirled configuration after the water receded. Fish were strewn about the parking lot.

Reviewing reports from the churches surveyed thus far, Smith said, “The first need is always prayer. It’s draining physically, emotionally and spiritually, and the greatest need is to be lifted up in prayer.”

With so many residents displaced, local churches likely will face difficulty maintaining ministries that require funding. Even the basic needs of paying staff salaries will be strained.

Smith recalled a sign posted at the crossroads upon entering San Leon that declared, “Let’s pull together, neighbors. We can beat this.”
Tammi Reed Ledbetter is news editor of the Southern Baptist TEXAN, newsjournal of the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention.

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