Though hit hard, Texas churches meet community needs in rare winter storm
No power for 32 hours.
Rolling blackouts with no warning amid record-low temperatures.
Snow and ice making roads impassable.
An exploding sprinkler system that flooded the church sanctuary, kitchen, classrooms and narthex.
Despite all that, the Rev. Dan DeLeon feels he is “one of the lucky ones” living through this week’s deadly winter storm in Texas.
“We have water,” said the pastor of Friends Congregational Church in College Station, 80 miles from Houston. “Our water is fine. Water is not going to be potable for who knows how long in many places.”
Fourteen million people — nearly half of all Texans — still face water issues. Seven million people living around Houston, Arlington, Austin and Fort Worth are under boiling alerts after power outages took out the water treatment plants.
‘No idea how bad this would be’
Monday’s massive winter storm brought arctic temperatures that taxed the state’s electric grid. Millions of people have been living for days in dangerous conditions. The Electric Reliablilty Council of Texas, which manages the power grid, didn’t make real progress restoring power until Thursday. According to PowerOutage.US, which tracks outages across the country, more than 170,000 are still without power on Friday afternoon.
Early Tuesday, DeLeon learned that a break in the church’s sprinkler system blew through the kitchen ceiling, leaving most of the church under an inch of water.
“We had no idea how bad this storm was going to be to the infrastructure,” he said. But the congregation is pulling together. As one member went to the church to start shoveling out water, another got an insurance claim done so contractors could go to work cleaning out the building.
“We are grateful on a lot of levels,” DeLeon said. “Church members are reaching out to each other. People are being intentional about that and doing what they can to help. I’m grateful for how many people outside of Texas are checking on us.”
UCC issues appeal
The current concern, besides drinking water, which is running short in a lot of areas, is food. Without power, food has spoiled. Grocery store shelves across Texas are bare. Delivery trucks have not been able to get through.
“With the loss of electricity and freezing temperatures we continue to be concerned for those who are affected,” said UCC Associate General Minister the Rev. Karen Georgia Thompson. “We want to assist our churches as they provide food and shelter for those in their communities. This appeal will assist to provide immediate needs in the aftermath of these devastating storms.”
The Rev. Campell Lovett, the interim South Central Conference Minister, said “the tragedy is still unfolding.”
”It’s a very tough situation for many, many people,” he said. “The weather is forecast to warm through the weekend. A lot of people may think everything is OK, but when it gets above freezing, the pipes will unfreeze.
“If there is a crack or break in the pipes there will be water damage. This will be happening in the next couple of days,” he continued. “There are already a lot of very cold people trying to figure out water damage and how to get it fixed.”
In New Braunfels: water in the Conference camp
One of the places needing attention is the UCC’s Slumber Falls Camp in New Braunfels.
“Our conference camp has sustained a lot of water damage due to burst pipes,” Campbell continued. “Fortunately no events are scheduled until March and that is a work weekend to get things in shape for spring. The water damage just gives us more to do.”
The broken pipes caused the shower house ceiling to collapse. “It’s a mess,” said Stacey Silvey, the Conference executive assistant. She got to see the damage up close, since the camp also houses the Conference offices.
While the office and camp have their own well water, the New Braunfels area is under boil water orders.
Contact with churches disrupted
Because of the widespread power outages, Conference communication with the churches was hindered until Thursday night. Campbell has offered emergency resources of the wider church to congregations serving their neighbors as warming centers or distributing food or water.
“In South Central Conference, we always say we are doing together what we cannot do alone,” Campbell said. “Many of our churches are like community centers, whether in small towns or urban areas. They will be primary responders.
“In addition, churches and church leaders will be in need. Even when our people and our pastors are struggling themselves, they are reaching out to help others,” he said. “That’s in the DNA of the UCC.”
In Fort Worth: a warming center and welcome
Embrace UCC already opened its doors to community members in need of heat and a hot meal. The Rev. Ken Ehrke, pastor of the church in Richland Hills, said his church is just blocks from the hospital and is close to three nursing homes, so it never lost power. However, “water must be boiled and is brown and dirty enough that we are bringing boiled water from home to use at church,” he said.
In a Facebook post he issued an open invitation of hospitality. “We have a few people in and out, happy to get warmed up and washed up with hot water — until it was contaminated — and to have something hot for lunch, heated in a microwave.”
“We have two UCC churches in the county. Our sister church is First Congregational UCC in Fort Worth,” he continued. “Pastor Lee Ann Bryce was without power for four and a half days. She and her wife kept a big fire in the fireplace and kept breaking ice in their pool to avoid more problems.”
“It will take a long time to repair the broken water mains in the street,” Ehrke said. “We are looking for the warm weather and getting life back to normal. For some homeowners, it will take months.”
In Dallas: damaged homes, shelter support
Severe weather caused Cathedral of Hope UCC, Dallas, to cancel a drive-through Ash Wednesday service on Feb. 17. With limited water and with electrical power going on and off, it closed its building for the week.
But the congregation was “working with our church and community partners to provide vital resources for warming stations and emergency shelters,” said the Rev. Neil Thomas, its senior pastor, in a Feb. 18 Facebook post. And its Congregational Care Team was reaching out to parishioners, monitoring their social media posts and inviting any in need to be in touch.
“We know that many in our community have been without power, water and heat for many days, and several have experienced catastrophic damage to your homes,” Thomas wrote. He noted that more damage was sure to be revealed “as the temperature begins to warm and the ice begins to thaw.”
Vital ministries disrupted
DeLeon said one of the worst things about the storm is the uncertainty it brought. “It’s causing despair because of the unknown — not just the physical damage or the personal safety issues,” he said. “We really don’t know how long this will last. It’s very disconcerting on people.”
It’s also disrupting vital ministries. Friends Church provides food from the Brazos Valley Food Bank. But with a tripped breaker, the food bank lost what they had. Grocery shortages also help cut off the supply. “Neighbors in need of food would drive through the church to pick up groceries,” DeLeon said. “So the most vulnerable of our neighbors are going without.”
“We know that the next few days and weeks will not be easy as we work to clean up the damage this storm has caused,” Thomas said in his Cathedral of Hope post. “We remember that the season of Lent, which started yesterday, is a season of renewal and a season to be reminded of God’s love and grace. During this time, we will continue to be the church God has called us to be: supporting and caring for one another through faith, hope and love.”
UCC news team member Hans Holznagel and Carol Fouke-Mpoyo, communications specialist with Wider Church Ministries, contributed to this article.
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