If one member suffers, all suffer together with it (1 Corinthians 12:26).
The pandemic would have been enough. The police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and too many others would have been plenty. Then last summer brought two hurricanes, including Laura, which destroyed the sanctuary of St. Paul Lutheran Church in Lake Charles, La. The fall teemed with political tension surrounding the presidential election.
We yearned for a new year.
It arrived Feb. 13 in the form of a winter storm. With bitter cold. With devastation. Pipes froze and burst, flooding buildings. An insurance adjuster told me there have been more claims in Houston for this storm than for Hurricane Harvey. Who would have believed an ice storm and freezing temperatures would cost more lives and damage than a hurricane?
The storm was forecast a week or so in advance, but we weren’t prepared for the power outages caused by ice storms and 10-degree temperatures—something not seen since 1989.
This was the “perfect storm” in some ways: The human need was already great, with unemployment so high during the pandemic. Climate change has led to weather extremes the likes of which old-timers tell me they have never seen. Food insecurity was critical even before the storm. A federal judge has ruled that a statewide moratorium on evictions is unconstitutional.
Like Aaron holding up the arms of Moses, individuals and other local congregations have scrambled to keep Santiago Apóstol/St. James funded.
The death toll is still being tabulated and, of course, debated, although it’s in the dozens at least.
Amid all this, the church has stepped up. Santiago Apóstol/St. James Lutheran, a small congregation on the north side of Houston, was fielding dozens of requests a day for assistance with food, rent and utilities prior to the storm. Now the number is higher than ever.
Santiago Apóstol/St. James is no stranger to serving its neighbors. With community wellness events, immigration forums, citizenship classes, food distributions and more, members have been serving the neighborhood in critical ways. The need, however, has exploded with the pandemic and the storm.
Thanks to gifts from the Texas-Louisiana Gulf Coast Synod Disaster Fund and grants from the ELCA COVID Response Fund, Santiago Apóstol/St. James has been able to help many. Like Aaron holding up the arms of Moses, individuals and other local congregations have scrambled to keep Santiago Apóstol/St. James funded. We are church together.
Santiago Apóstol/St. James has sustained damage from burst pipes. Every time members think they have the pipes fixed, another gives out—and finding a plumber in Houston is a huge problem now. Thankfully, one of the members of a citizenship class being sponsored at Holy Trinity Lutheran Church in Houston is a plumber and has been helping out. What goes around comes around!
I was amazed when Kinsmen Lutheran Church in Houston, despite extensive damage to its two-story family life center, hosted a community-wide food distribution in partnership with the Houston Food Bank. Members were mucking, gutting and repairing burst pipes in the building, and yet, ministry to a hurting community continued. The food distribution program served 1,700 people. Beth Warpmaeker and Mark England, pastors of Kinsmen, have committed to continuing the distribution twice a month for the foreseeable future as food insecurity, fueled by the pandemic and now the winter storm, rises. They also hold free community meals every Wednesday; these usually feed around 130 people, although as many as 200 have attended.
Kinsmen has managed to launch a Latinx ministry in the middle of the pandemic. Though hampered by physical distancing and online worship, the ministry has taken off and continues to grow under the leadership of Pastor Gabriel Marcaño.
When water started pouring through the ceiling into the sanctuary of Iglesia Luterana Principe de Paz in Houston, the congregation turned off the water. Members found and repaired the leaky pipe , but the damage had been done. Then they found another leak. When I arrived on Sunday morning that week, there was water in the sanctuary. A third leak. Again they turned off the water.
Principe de Paz and its pastor, Adriana Johnson-Rivas, have a had a hard year. As the pandemic has disproportionately affected the Latinx community, they have mourned five COVID-related deaths in the parish. Many in the community and the congregation have lost work and experienced food insecurity. Johnson-Rivas also weathered a personal tragedy: her sister died as she was being taken to the hospital. (Her illness was not COVID-related, but overcrowding at the hospital had forced her discharge days earlier.) Despite all this, Principe de Paz serves as a community of spiritual healing and hope.
The Texas-Louisiana Gulf Coast Synod now has 10 congregations with major flooding. Humanitarian needs and congregational needs go hand in hand. Congregations with an outward focus become beacons of hope in their communities. Ministry continues even as congregations face the realities of reconstructing.
Pastors of Kinsmen have committed to continuing the distribution program twice a month for the foreseeable future as food insecurity rises.
On Feb. 15, Pete Lopez—pastor of St. John Lutheran in Angleton and St. Peter Lutheran in Bay City—and his wife, Elida, faced a power outage and sought refuge from the cold at House of Prayer Lutheran in Clear Lake City, where Elida works. After warming up and recharging their devices, they returned home, only to find a burst pipe. Furniture was drenched, ceiling tiles had fallen down and floor tiles were coming up.
The house, which had witnessed family meals, movie nights, tears and laughter, was now a mess. Pete and Elida scrambled for a place to stay, landing at the parsonage at St. Peter, then rooming with friends and finally lodging at a hotel.
The Lopezes had the resources to find shelter and repair their home. Many in the area covered by the synod do not; they continue to live in uncertainty with destroyed homes and prohibitive deductibles. People grow desperate.
The Lopezes’ story continues: when they arrived at St. John, they found even more water there. Nine copper pipes had burst, showering different areas of the church.
So much destruction from an unexpected storm.
As empty as the Lopezes feel about losing their home, they and the members of St. John have found their cup overflowing because members of the ELCA, both near and far, have offered help and loving words of comfort.
- The ELCA Texas-Louisiana Gulf Coast Synod is engaging in an emergency appeal with a goal of raising $100,000. Gifts to this Emergency Winter Freeze Appeal are repairing lives, homes and houses of worship right now. (The North/West Lower Michigan Synod will donate $5,000 after 400 donors have made gifts of any size.)
- Gifts to Lutheran Disaster Response’s (LDR) “U.S. Severe Storms” designation will be used in full to assist those affected by storms in Texas. LDR is communicating with and stands ready to support the Texas-Louisiana Gulf Coast Synod, the Southwestern Texas Synod, the Northern Texas-Northern Louisiana Synod and Lutheran Social Services Disaster Response.