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Houston pastors plan to ‘stand with our people’ during Rita

 


Houston pastors plan to ‘stand with our people’ during Rita

Sept. 24, 2005         

A UMNS Report
By Steve Smith*

In his seminary ethics class, the Rev. Jim Jackson learned an important credo: never desert your parishioners in time of need.

So while Hurricane Rita aimed its wrath for the Texas Gulf Coast and 2 million area residents fled for safety, the senior pastor at Houston’s Chapelwood United Methodist Church planned to stay put.

“It never occurred to me to leave,” said Jackson, whose church stands 35 miles from the coast. “Staying goes with the turf. We’re here not to save our skins but to stand with our people.

“Besides, I’ve got my dog here, so I’m not alone.”

As the hurricane continued its collision course for the coast, United Methodist pastors said Sept. 22 they would weather Rita’s rage so they could open the doors of their churches for people needing spiritual solace. Many of them lead churches in areas around Houston that were under voluntary evacuation, though some, like the Rev. Clay Whitaker, were in coastal areas where disaster officials had ordered all residents to flee for higher ground.

Whitaker, pastor of First United Methodist Church in Vidor, Texas, about 90 minutes from Galveston and in Rita’s projected path, said he intended to stay so he could open his church for people living in mobile homes and poorly built houses that Rita could crush easily. However, Red Cross and disaster relief workers said Whitaker would do more harm than good because opening the church would discourage people from obeying mandatory evacuation orders.

Whitaker said his wife and four children were staying in a pastor’s parsonage in Palestine in east Texas, far from harm’s way.

“I’m a die-hard, a pastor who doesn’t want to run out on his parish in times of crisis,” Whitaker said. “But if I opened the church and Rita knocked out the electricity and water for several weeks, we’d be in a real pickle. The Red Cross, fire chiefs and the others said I would provide better service by getting people to a safer place so all of us could come back in one piece and rebuild.”

Bishop Janice Riggle Huie, leader of the denomination’s Houston-based Texas Annual (regional) Conference, said she was staying in Houston so she could respond to needs once Rita blows over.

“Most of us feel like while it might not be an easy night, we’re really going to be safe or we wouldn’t be doing this,” said Huie, who lives in an area under voluntary evacuation.

“We learned from Katrina and watched the aftermath, so now it’s time to pack up, not take undue chances, and hope and pray the situation isn’t as bad as it was in New Orleans.”

As Rita bore down on Texas, United Methodist leaders and volunteers continued providing shelter, living supplies and other aid to many of the more than 50,000 former New Orleans residents bused to Houston after Hurricane Katrina left them homeless Aug. 29.

“Katrina relief is winding down after three nonstop weeks, and now Rita is on the way,” said Susan Silvus, outreach director at St. Luke’s United Methodist Church. The church’s leaders coordinated relief efforts for hundreds of thousands of New Orleans residents at Houston’s Astrodome. “Needless to say, we are more than antsy.”

The Rev. Jim Moore, the church’s senior pastor, was staying in Houston, Huie said.

Meanwhile, Chapelwood United Methodist Church’s special Web site, www.chapelwood911.org, helps congregants and other people keep up with Rita. The Web site offers prayers, songs and other resources people can use to worship together in their neighborhoods as well as streaming audio of inspirational words from the pastors.

The Rev. Cynthia Harvey, pastor at Memorial Drive United Methodist Church, said she is not evacuating because her west Houston church is 40 miles from the coast and her church is a central part of the community.

“After Katrina, we became a hub for helping people evacuate,” Harvey said. “We fed them, helped them find clothing, find apartments, and other denominations joined us. My big concern right now is whether our building will be safe enough after Rita to respond to the needs of this community.

“We’re about responding to the needs of the people, and that requires us to sometimes be in a place that comes with risks.”

The Rev. James Bankston, senior pastor at St. Paul’s United Methodist Church, said his wife, two daughters and four grandchildren left about 5 a.m. Sept. 22 bound for Malakoff in East Texas. About 10 hours later, they had traveled as far as Cleveland, Texas, only 100 miles from Houston, because the highways were clogged with outbound traffic.

A son-in-law moved to Austin, Texas, with his company, while another son-in-law stayed with Bankston.

Bankston is chairman of the Interfaith Ministries of Greater Houston, which is helping members of Christian, Muslim, Jewish and other faiths respond to Katrina and Rita’s survivors. About 20 parishioners and members of his maintenance and custodial staff planned to hole up in the church during Rita’s onslaught.

“I want to open the doors on Sunday morning for people who want to be in church,” Bankston said. “I didn’t want them to find locked doors.”

*Smith is a freelance writer based in Dallas.

News media contact: Tim Tanton, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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