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Along Harvey’s path, churches reflect on 1-year mark

SOUTHEAST TEXAS (BP) — Hurricane Harvey swept disaster across the Texas Gulf Coast one year ago, first pummeling Rockport and Port Aransas with destructive winds, then stalling over Houston for three days before moving to the Golden Triangle with rainfall of up to 60 inches. Dozens were killed and thousands were displaced.

Separate gatherings marking the anniversary of the disaster were held at Southern Baptists of Texas Convention churches the final weekend in August, the order of the three commemorations tracking Harvey’s path through Rockport, Humble and Beaumont.

Each event featured hot dogs, snow cones, outdoor games, music and speakers, SBTC Disaster Relief (DR) associate Wally Leverle said in describing the block parties.

Kevin Muilenburg, pastor of Coastal Oaks Church, welcomed the crowd of around 100 assembled outside the Rockport church’s gym on Sat., Aug. 25.

“It was a little different standing in this parking lot a year ago, but we are still in the process of making recovery from Harvey. I just want to give thanks to the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention, their disaster relief team, all that they have done to help us,” Muilenburg said, referring not only to general DR assistance but also the help given him and his family after their home was damaged.

Gesturing to the gym, Muilenburg said Coastal Oaks’ role had been to “be available” following Harvey. Its gym served as a distribution center for relief supplies while the church housed volunteers and sent out work crews.

“Our desire is just to be the hands and feet of Jesus, to be whatever He wants us to be and to be available in the community,” the pastor said.

Muilenburg thanked God for the opportunity and thanked DR volunteers attending the celebration before introducing Jim Richards, SBTC executive director, who gave the first of three evangelistic messages he would deliver at the events.

Much of Jesus ministry took place around the Sea of Galilee, Richards said in speaking from Luke 8:23-27, calling the disciples “men of courage” who braved the dangers of the sea but were fearful in the face of storms.

“And so it is in our lives that storms come our way as well. Hurricane Harvey met landfall one year ago today,” Richards said in enumerating the cost of the storm: $125 billion in damage across the southern part of Texas, 190,000 homes damaged, 88 lives lost.

“When Jesus is in the boat, we are not to be fearful of the storm,” he proclaimed.

Setting forth the Gospel, Richards told the crowd, “We must give Him our lives. It’s what the Bible calls repentance. And we must believe. We must trust Him, take Him at His word that He will forgive us our sins and live in our lives.” Muilenburg then led in a time of prayer.

The next day, Aug. 26, 200-225 people gathered at First Baptist Church in Humble where executive pastor Rick Whitaker thanked the SBTC and welcomed the crowd for coming together for the unusual: “celebrating a disaster.”

Whitaker recalled spending the night in the church when the disaster hit and wading through the water-filled parking lot hoping to avoid electrocution.

“We saw people come together like we had never seen before,” he said, emphasizing the role of churches in responding to the crisis. “This area did not receive the full force of the government’s support. The story will be told that it was the churches that stepped up. Not just one church but many churches stepped up.”

Whitaker introduced Cameron Whitley, pastor of West Lake Church of Houston, who called the occasion “a great opportunity for us as the church to come together and remember how God united not just people, but how God united His church around the mission of His Kingdom.”

Not only did the floodwaters rise, but the “church rose up in a mighty collaborative effort that displayed the heart of God,” Whitley said, recognizing those who were part of the relief effort.

Richards spoke next, thanking FBC Humble and all who came out to “enjoy the nice, cool Houston humidity,” before explaining the work of SBTC DR and encouraging involvement.

“Harvey was an unwelcome and unwanted visitor,” said Richards, introducing Luke 19:1-10 as his text in which Jesus, a “welcomed visitor” in Jericho, met Zaccheus.

Just as Jesus saw Zaccheus, so He sees us, Richards said, explaining the Gospel and issuing an invitation: “He offers to anyone and everyone who would receive Him eternal life. Yes, Jesus knows us.”

The Aug. 27 event at Calvary Baptist Church in Beaumont marked the final Harvey commemoration.

Pastor Nathan Cothen opened the celebration by speaking from atop a trailer the church used to haul heavy equipment after the storm.

“I am grateful tonight to be using the same trailer here in a little bit of a celebration of what the Lord has done,” Cothen told the crowd of 250. “If I were to ask anyone here if they wished that Harvey never happened, we would all say yes, but let me tell you a little secret: There were people who came to know Jesus Christ as their Lord and their Savior in Harvey that never would have otherwise.”

Richards delivered a Gospel presentation from Luke 8:22-25, relating how God used a storm to cause others to know Jesus.

Although the disaster was cataclysmic, Cothen said, it taught people who were affected that life isn’t about the stuff you have, it’s about the relationships you have with others.

“We have lived by the saying, ‘Life will go on, but it will never be the same,’ during this whole process,” he said.

Cothen described how God had enabled His church to help others, offering an example: “After Harvey, we met a couple who never knew Jesus. We brought them food and helped during their time of need and they ended up receiving Christ and are now a part of the church.”

Some 250 SBTC churches reported damage from Hurricane Harvey, Richards noted. “Some had roofs blown off, others had flood damage, but all that were affected [experienced] an immediate impact on the way they did ministry,” he said.

Many of the damaged homes belonged to pastors and church staff who needed to care for their congregations. The SBTC launched a strategy to restore pastors and churches so that they could focus on ministry.

“Our strategy was to go and get the pastor back in his home first, then we would assist the church to get back to functioning so that they could help their community,” Richards recounted, noting that the SBTC was able to give around $3 million through donations to relieve the suffering and difficulty that these pastors and churches went through.