The ecumenical work of one small United Church of Christ congregation in Texas has been very evident for almost three weeks. First United Church UCC of West, Texas, the tiny town rocked by a deadly explosion at a fertilizer plant, opened its doors to welcome members of a neighboring church that was damaged by the blast April 17 — since then, the congregations have been sharing space and Sunday services.
"God is still speaking as these two congregations worship together," said Irene Schiemenz, chairperson of the First United Church council.
"When I got a call that the Brethren needed a place to worship, I said, 'Good,'" Schiemenz said. "I called Pastor [Curtis] Holland and we talked and he told me what they needed, and I said, 'Yes, you can come and worship with us.'
The UCC congregation of 17 more than tripled with the addition of people from Brethren Church joined in the last two Sundays, and might do so again for a third consecutive week on May 5.
"It'll work this Sunday if they're with us," Schiemenz said. "It was the right thing to do."
As Brethren Church found a temporary space to continue its services, First United Church has benefitted from the experience as well. The congregations have alternated which style of worship to use each service, and First United Church members have joined in the Brethren's Bible studies — the first time Schiemenz can recall a Bible study class at the small congregation.
Schiemenz said the town is close-knit, and residents look after each other to offer what help they can. Assistance from across the UCC in Texas has come in from other towns and the UCC South Central Conference, which is raising money for repairs.
St. John's UCC in Robinson Texas, about 25 miles south of West, also extended a helping hand when members prepared breakfast for one of the joint worship services. The Rev. Scott Spence of St. John's UCC officiated during an interfaith memorial on April 23 in Waco, Texas, offering prayers of healing and recovery for those injured in West, Texas as well as gratitude to first-responders to the explosion.
The South Central Conference has established a fund to take donations to support recovery work which continues after the fertilizer plant explosion in the tiny town of 2,800 resulted in 14 deaths, scores of injuries, and dozens left homeless. The executive committee of the conference's board will work with local church leaders to make sure that funds are used first for restoration needs at First United Church, and then direct remaining funds toward needs in the community.
Schiemenz said the First United Church building had some minor damage to internal walls and stained-glass windows. Once an inspection of the property ensures there is no major damage to the building's foundation, First United Church will work through its insurance agency to make sure restoration work is completed.
The work will take longer at Brethren Church, which is located about a mile from the fertilizer plant. Pastor Holland said the building's doors and windows were blown off, and the full extent of the damage is still being assessed. It is unknown how long it might take to complete the repairs, but with about 50 people at the first joint worship on April 21, there's a place where all will be welcome to worship on Sundays.
"The community is well taken care of," Schiemenz said. "Everybody's kin to everybody."
Contributions to assist the West,Texas relief efforts may be sent to: UCC South Central Conference, 9022 Long Point Road, Houston, Texas, 77055.