Texas congregation embraces opportunity to reach out to island community after killer hurricane
GALVESTON, Texas —
Any other Lord’s Day, the 100-member Broadway church would welcome 50 or so tourists to worship at its red-brick building in the heart of the city.
Dozens of homeless people would come, too, for Bible study and a hot meal afterward.
But on this sunny, breezy Sunday, debris covers the beach. Trash lines the streets in every neighborhood. The inescapable odors of stagnant water, rot and sewage fill the air.
Household furnishings dot the landscape. Cars, ice chests and patio furniture peek out over mounds of sand.
Nothing is where it should be since Hurricane Ike battered this island community.
With its building stripped to the studs and half its members’ homes uninhabitable, the Broadway church assembles instead inside minister Allen Isbell’s renovated greenhouse.
Some members wear shorts and work boots. They pluck donated Bibles from a rack, unsure where their own treasured copies might be. The roar of chainsaws and shouts of nearby work crews punctuate their prayers.
Yet, the congregation of mostly gray-haired folks and college students rejoices.
Members of the Broadway church — a racially diverse congregation with active homeless, prison and college outreach programs — focus on what they’ve got rather than what they’ve lost.
Simply put: They have each other, and they have a purpose that includes more than assembling in a building.
“We’re all accounted for,” Bob Roland, a retired dentist who serves as associate minister, tells the congregation, “and we have an opportunity that we’ve never had before to reach out across the island.
“What we do now will define us to a lot of folks.”‘PEOPLE KEEP CALLING ... OFFERING WHAT WE NEED’
Besides the Broadway church, Galveston Island is home to the Avenue K church, a predominantly black congregation of 40 longtime members with a strong presence in its area.
Neighboring Bolivar Peninsula is home to the Bolivar church on Crystal Beach. Planted by the Broadway church in the 1970s, its future is uncertain. The Crystal Beach area was decimated in the storm, and most structures were completely leveled.
Together, these areas provided Texas’ first line of defense against Ike. That’s what barrier islands do: offer beaches and a seaside atmosphere for tourists and absorb the worst of the blow from ocean storms.
But when lives are lived out on these pieces of land, the obliteration is almost unimaginable — especially for those who lack the funds or physical strength to clean up and rebuild.
“Galveston doesn’t have a middle class,” said Isbell, a trial attorney who practices in Houston during the week and preaches at the Broadway church on Sundays. “Plus, there’s not many young families living on the island. They can’t afford it.”
Financially secure retirees and college students comprise most of the island’s population, while indigents and the poor come and stay for free health care at the teaching hospital, not to mention the mild climate.
Isbell and his wife, Mikey, have served here since 1977 without accepting a paycheck. The couple was drawn to Galveston out of a love for its history and aesthetics and quickly embraced its people.
As Ike tore through the Gulf Coast, killing 37 in Texas and hundreds still unaccounted for, Allen and Mikey Isbell watched via television from his sister’s home in Tyler, Texas. They were optimistic their home — whose construction was interrupted by a hurricane in 1908 — would weather the 110-mph sustained winds and escape most standing water because of its interior location.
The Isbells weren’t disappointed. While their basement flooded and a massive tree toppled onto their three-story-high roof, most living space was unscathed. Mikey Isbell has left the hurricane bars latched on some doors to pay homage to the home’s carefully engineered design.
Sunday worship now takes place in their backyard, which was cleaned by volunteers from Houston. Church leaders hope that their building will be inhabitable again by January or February.
“People keep calling and offering what we need,” Roland said, shaking his head. “We’ve got pews pledged. We’ve got songbooks donated. It’s uncanny.”‘WHEN WE LOOKED ... WE WERE SO DISHEARTENED’
Members at Avenue K aren’t quite as optimistic about their facility or future.
Four feet of saltwater soaked their small, white-frame structure. Robert Osbourne, minister for 40-plus years, evacuated and was unable to return to Galveston when city leaders allowed residents back.
The few members — all women — who have ventured inside the building didn’t feel comfortable making decisions about cleanup without others’ input.
“It’s bad,” said Avenue K member Velma Williams. “When we looked around, we were so disheartened. I don’t know how we’ll ever be able to bring it up to code.”
Williams, who described herself as the matriarch of the congregation, evacuated to Fort Worth, Texas, and stayed with family until she could come home.
“God blessed me,” she said. “My basement is messed up, but otherwise, everything is going to be OK at my place.”
Fellow Avenue K member Shirley Bush, who lives in nearby Texas City and drives the causeway each week to attend service, said she misses her church family.
“We just hope and pray everyone is all right,” Bush said. “There aren’t many of us left as it is.”
Will Dent grew up on the east end of Galveston Island and was baptized at Avenue K. He made a quick trip from his home in League City, Texas, to check on his former neighborhood and his first church.
“I was devastated. This is part of my life and to see it like this,” he said, his voice trailing.
Dent left a note on the door offering help from the Mainland church in League City, where he serves as a deacon.
“Avenue K is a small congregation, but it’s still a congregation,” he said. “We have to care.”
For now, Williams and Bush are content to meet with their brothers and sisters from the Broadway church, fanning themselves in the 80-degree heat.
“I can’t tell you how full my heart is right now that we can, for a little while, sit with people who share our faith and share our struggles,” Williams said. “Whatever the future holds, God has a plan.”‘EVERY RESOURCE ... IS GOING TO BE USED’
Joe Knox, who manages the Broadway congregation’s funds, eats lunch at his dining room table from a foam tray as he talks about the church’s desire to use Ike for good.
A bachelor, Knox doesn’t live alone. Two Indian statues provide quiet companionship in the next room.
“He’s one of the quirky ones here on the island,” Mikey Isbell joked.
Photos and Post-it notes with addresses are spread before him. The clutter is by no means an indication of his organizational skills, but more the enormity of the task before him.
“We own our building, and our staff is mostly volunteer,” Knox said. “So we’ve always been able to do a lot in the community with the money we have. It’s amazing how much this church gives and gives away. That is all magnified now, with the help we’re getting.”
Early donations have allowed Christians here to provide emergency funds and cleanup supplies for members and their neighbors, Knox said. With the help of relief ministries associated with Churches of Christ, thousands of Galveston residents and first responders have received hot meals and boxes of food. In the coming weeks, appliances and other big-ticket items will be purchased wholesale with donated funds.
Russ and Joan Mertens, who coordinate requests for assistance, picked up a voter’s registration map after they returned from their son’s home in Florida. Their mission is by no means political — they figure it’s the easiest way to make sure everyone on the island is contacted and offered help from the church.
“Every resource we have and will get is going to be used for the purpose of spreading out on the island and serving people,” Joan Mertens said. “It’s the most basic outreach we can imagine right now.”
They waited out storm at home
Dan and Dorothy McClanahan were packed and ready to leave Galveston before Ike arrived. Only the Broadway church members thought city officials would announce their ZIP code if they needed to go. The couple weathered Ike in their nearly 100-year-old home. Floodwater crept about 11 feet up the forest green steps of their porch, stopping just short of the doorway. They were among the first rescued by emergency crews after the winds subsided.
He waited out storm at church
Broadway member Al Harrington lives in a Volkswagen van. Not the best place to ride out a hurricane. So Harrington bedded down in a hallway of the church the night before the storm hit. When Ike made landfall, he awoke not to noise, but rather to the cold stream threatening to carry off his mattress. He fled upstairs to the church’s nursery and stayed 10 days, surviving on canned meat, peanut butter and MRE’s.
GALVESTON CHURCH OF CHRIST:
c/o Allen Isbell, 1715 35th St., Galveston, TX 77550.
CHURCHES OF CHRIST DISASTER RELIEF EFFORT: www.disasterreliefeffort.org
CHURCHES OF CHRIST DISASTER RESPONSE TEAM: www.churchesofchristdrt.org.
Alachua, Fla., church. (386) 462-3326.