When Harvey hit, we were sitting on the living room floor eating take-out on a table of boxes. Having moved to Houston only a week before, it was a whirlwind to a hurricane. My mother-in-law called to say her garage was flooding, so I took my shovel and worked in the rain through the night to stem the tide. Crisis averted until my wife frantically called to say water was coming through the ceiling, and I spent the rest of the night finding creative ways to use pots and pans. Crisis averted, until my son and I set out for the Austin airport. After several detours, we were driving through two feet of fast-flowing water on a dark deserted farm road wishing we could turn back and worrying about losing more than my 4-Runner. Sitting at a four-way stop, nothing but water in every direction, as thousands of displaced crawdads floated by, it was a surreal moment of helplessness. Did you have one of those Harvey moments? The moment passed—or became more surreal when a giant army vehicle appeared out of the darkness, and a soldier said, “There’s no way out.” We followed in his wake to the only dry ground he could find—the pavilion of a flooded housing development. It was a long night. It could have been worse.
HIDDEN CRISIS For many Houstonians, it was. Harvey claimed lives and livelihoods, brought a city to its knees and wrought the worst housing disaster in American history. “Houston Strong” proved true, and recovery began. A year has passed by. In many ways, Houston is back. Many have repaired their homes, returned to jobs, and resumed some semblance of a new normal. Others have recovered thanks to an outpouring of generosity by donors, recovery organizations, churches, and volunteers. There is much for which to be grateful. Yet, there remains a hidden crisis. Do you see it? An estimated 100,000 people are still displaced or living in gutted homes, lacking the resources to rebuild. Yes, 100,000. The housing disaster is also a human disaster, from which it can seem like someone is telling us, “There’s no way out.” As surveys reveal, Harvey victims often struggle with financial challenges, medical issues, anxiety, depression and other symptoms of post-traumatic stress. As the Houston Chronicle quoted one displaced father of three, remarking about Houston’s seemingly strong recovery, “That may be for some people, but not for a lot of us.” As countless stories and studies show, there are, indeed, “a lot of us” and current recovery capacity simply pales in comparison to the overwhelming magnitude of the task. What is missing?
“As we see it, the gaping holes are not government or money, but loving neighbors who care enough to stop and inquire. What’s missing are the servant laborers who offer what they have to help.”
GOD-SHAPED HOLES In a now famous story, Jesus tells of a man hit by a hurricane of thieves and left for dead on the roadside. Two travelers pass him by, and he continues lying there, helpless. It is an unmitigated human disaster. What is missing? According to Jesus, a neighbor—someone who cares enough to stop and inquire and someone willing to offer what he has to help. The same is true of Harvey recovery. What is missing? As we see it, the two gaping holes are not government or money, but loving neighbors who care enough to stop and inquire. What's missing are the servant laborers who offer what they have to help. Why do we call these holes “God-shaped”? Given that our highest calling is to love God and love our neighbor, these are exactly the kinds of holes God’s people are designed to fill. Will we fill them? Unfortunately, local churches, while often engaged in the initial disaster response, have not often engaged in long-term recovery ministry. To change that narrative requires a paradigm shift in which local churches and church coalitions see it as part of their mission to own their community’s recovery.
Consider the potential: Houston Responds church coalitions, representing less than 10% of Houston’s churches, have alone repaired more houses than all other volunteer-based recovery organizations combined. Imagine how a modest increase in local church participation could make a major difference in the lives of our disaster-affected neighbors. Imagine how a major increase in church participation could literally change the course of Houston’s recovery.
“Disaster recovery ministry is a truly unique opportunity to love our neighbors in ways that would otherwise not have been possible.”
HOUSTON RESPONDS So why not encourage your church to participate? We hear a variety of answers: We’re burned out. We need to get back to ministry as usual. There are other needs, and we can’t do everything. We don’t have the expertise. We want help, but don’t know what to do. As a pastor of twenty-five years, I know the feeling. So did a few other pastors of Houston churches that poured themselves into the initial response. They wondered how they could realistically engage the process of walking a family through home rebuilding and recovery. Their answer: Together. The result: Houston Responds. Our mission is to unite, empower and mobilize churches for current and future disaster response and long-term recovery ministry. For more and more churches, being in Houston means seeing disaster recovery as a “new normal” part of church life and ministry. It need not be a burden on staff or exhausting to volunteers. With the help of a church coalition, recovery ministry can be an enjoyable and sustainable way to serve and love our neighbors. Houston Responds simply helps churches team up to make it happen.
“Pastors wondered how they could realistically engage the process of walking a family through home rebuilding and recovery. The answer: Together. The result: Houston Responds.”
DON’T WASTE YOUR HURRICANE! As one of our network directors, Colleen Henneke, recently shared, “Disaster recovery ministry is a truly unique opportunity to love our neighbors in ways that would otherwise not have been possible. It builds bridges. It opens doors into homes, families, and communities in ways we never could have imagined.” Colleen has many stories to tell, but one, she says, answers best the “why” of disaster recovery ministry. Watch this story below.
The blessing of engaging your church in disaster recovery ministry is this: It opens doors to loving our neighbors that would have happened in no other way. It has the potential to transform receivers, givers, churches and entire communities, and to witness to the gracious love of God.
No one would have wished for Harvey, but it came and left an amazing opportunity in its wake.
Don’t waste your hurricane!
Jeff Shulz, Director of Networks