The transient nature of our earthly homes. The pre-eminence of our relationship with God. The importance of witnessing in any circumstance. The centrality of helping others with no strings attached. These are some of the spiritual lessons some Seventh-day Adventist members who were in the path of Hurricane Harvey say they learned since the monster storm hit southeast Texas, United States, in late August.
“Even amidst the devastation and loss here in the greater Houston Area, we have seen the hand of God at work!” said Carlos Craig, president of the Texas Conference. While he acknowledged eight churches took on water and The Oaks Christian School was severely flooded, he was glad to report no loss of life among church members. And he said he felt refreshed after witnessing how members went out of their way to assist those in need.
“The opportunity for our churches to serve the communities they reside in has been glorious to watch! God is good all the time, even in the midst of trials,” he said.
A Hurricane Named Harvey
The first major hurricane to make landfall in the US since 2005, Hurricane Harvey caused not only destruction to homes but catastrophic flooding in southeastern Texas on Aug 25. According to various weather reports, in a four-day period, some areas in eastern Texas received more than 40 inches (1,000 mm) of rain. With peak accumulations of 51.88 inches (1,318 mm), Harvey caused hundreds of thousands of homes to be flooded and dozens of deaths. According to several reports, more than 30,000 people were displaced.
Harvey also caused catastrophic inland flooding in the Greater Houston metropolitan area, where millions of people live. The hurricane is considered by some experts to be the worst disaster in Texas history, with losses estimated to be from 70 to 190 billion US dollars. Recovery is expected to take many years.
Getting Ready for the Storm
Even before the storm hit, the Adventist Community Services Disaster Response (ACS DR) for the Seventh-day Adventist Church in North America had convened a meeting with 25 union and local conference ACS DR personnel from across the territory. Church institutions in southeastern Texas, which had gone through severe storms before, did all they could to get ready for Harvey’s arrival.
“We moved our computers and piano up to the highest buildings on campus,” explained James Friesen, principal of The Oaks Christian School in Houston. “We covered doors and windows, and sealed gaps on the wall bricks with silicone glue.”
ACS DR reported volunteers had stocked trailers with clothing, hygiene kits, flood buckets, and other items. Both the Southwest Region Conference and Texas Conference prepared with plans for warehouse and supply management in Houston and surrounding towns.
Harvey, however, surpassed all preparations. Due to massive and widespread flooding, the needs soon became greater than anticipated. And at The Oaks, the barriers couldn’t hold.
“Water flowed in freely,” said Friesen. “It went up to 6-7 feet high, and even reached 15 inches in our highest building.”
Members and Volunteers Step Up
As soon as the storm moved on to Louisiana on Aug 30, Adventist agencies and local churches stepped up to assist those in need of water, food, shelter, and support. As requests for donations started pouring in, ACS, in partnership with the Adventist [SJ1] Relief Agency (ADRA) led the coordination of the relief efforts. Local Adventist churches World Harvest Outreach and Beaumont became warehouses for stocking and distribution of supplies.
In a letter, Larry Moore, president of the Southwestern Union Conference, a church region which includes Texas, shared some of the rescue and recovery activity which took place in the area after the storm.
“Teams of pastors and members helped evacuate other members and their neighbors; a group of Master Guides pulled together to evacuate nearly 90 people using inflatable mattresses in the flood waters…; members from hundreds of miles away organized and delivered truckloads of donations of food, water, and emergency supplies to local churches and where needed; the Texas Adventist Book Center provided food for those evacuees; and the Southwest Region Conference opened its summer camp to shelter evacuees,” wrote Moore.
In addition, the Southwest Region Conference began operating a city-wide distribution center in partnership with the city of Houston. “We have been providing clothing, food, water, and more as we have received truckloads of goods from all over the country from as far away as California, Missouri and New Hampshire,” said Calvin Watkins, president of the Southwest Region Conference. “We probably have serviced on an average 300-400 families daily at the distribution center.”
The relief organizations were joined in their efforts by Southwestern Adventist University students. The Adventist-managed institution based in Keene, Texas, a four-hour drive from Houston, sent a sizable group who spent Labor Day weekend—a public holiday in North America—assisting in The Oaks demolition and cleaning efforts.
“Volunteers came from all over,” said Friesen. “Even when the place was not yet accessible by car, teachers and young volunteers put on their mud boots and began to work on site. They were a godsend.”
At The Oaks, everyone worked in coordination on the many recovery activities planned. While some lined up at stores to buy bleach and insulation, others took the pieces of wrecked furniture and school supplies to dumpsters.
They were assisted logistically by other local churches and institutions. Houston Central Seventh-day Adventist Church, for instance, not only distributed clothing and supplies every day at their community service center but also helped house students and volunteers from other locations who were volunteering in the cleanup.
Amid so much devastation, the school has witnessed God’s abundant blessings, said Friesen.
“People brought tractors and backhoes to support the cleaning process,” he said. “A restoration company 200 miles (over 300 kilometers) away lent us professional fans and dehumidifiers to speed up the drying process.”
The school is working against the clock in drywall, electricity and other repairs, with the goal of resuming classes on Monday, September 18.
“We try to make most of every day,” said Friesen. “Every day, we fight and we get some victories.”
Church leaders and members affected by Harvey agree their experiences in the last couple of weeks hold powerful spiritual lessons that they were fortunate enough to learn or relearn.
“It's amazing to see how God has spoken to me through the Hurricane Harvey tragedy,” wrote Mark Valadez, pastor of the Orange and Groves Seventh-day Adventist churches. “The fact that my family and I were displaced from our home…reminds me that this world is not our home. We may lose earthly possessions, but our relationship with God is what is most important and will get us through.”
Friesen agrees. “The catastrophe has reminded us that this is temporary and we are not taking anything home,” he said. “Our home is to come, so we shouldn’t get used to this one.”
He also highlighted how God is using the ordeal for His good purposes.
“What Satan used to divide us, God is using it to unite us,” said Friesen.
His words were echoed by Valadez, who said it was powerful to see God’s love shine through people of all cultures as they joined as one. “We are all Gods’ children helping one another,” he said.
“We have seen suffering; we have seen the people and the suffering has become our suffering and the people have become us,” concluded Watkins.
Valadez also pointed out Harvey has given him some witnessing opportunities. “I have been able to share my faith with neighbors who didn’t seem to be open to the gospel,” he said. “Through this tragedy, we all have seen our need to depend on our Heavenly Father.”
Moore added the church region he leads praises God for the selfless service of so many committed individuals.
“In the midst of hurt and pain, stories like [the ones from recovery efforts] give us hope. And in loving each other through acts of service, especially in times of great need, we can show the love of God,” he wrote.