On Saturday, September 17, 2017 a group of about 80 volunteers traveled with Cornerstone Church in San Antonio, TX to Rockport, TX to assist in cleaning up debris left behind by hurricane Harvey the week before.
My brother, Cesar and his wife Cindy and I, had the opportunity to join in these efforts. We arrived at the church grounds a little after 4 am that morning to load into the buses and head out. The drive time to Rockport from San Antonio is about 3 hours, 182 miles. Right before arriving at Rockport we passed through Corpus Christi, and as we entered the city- there was evidence of Hurricane Harvey’s destructive ways, his path, his fury.
It was incredibly surreal.
I don’t think you can ever prepare for seeing something so heartbreaking. The news didn’t do justice to the reality of what we saw. The sights hit your heart like a ton of bricks. Nothing else can really explain it. Our bus was silent. What we were witnessing, as we rode in our bus, through Corpus Christi into Rockport, was jaw-dropping. Occassionally someone said, ‘Oh my goodness’, or ‘how sad’, or ‘wow’. It’s hard to formulate the right adjectives to come out of your mouth, that you feel in your heart.
In the piles of 2 x 4’s, and plywood you could spot what used to be someone’s dining room. Someone’s bedroom. Living space. Businesses completely leveled to the ground. I couldn’t help but think about someone coming back after evacuating- hoping, and wishing, and praying that their home would be spared, that their place of employment, their place of worship, their home-grown business- that they would still be standing with minimal, or no damage. Only to find it is now a pile of furniture, under wooden beams, soaked with stenched water. Nothing as you left it. Tree limbs and critters now occupy the space you called home. Heartbreaking.
In my mind, I formed stories. I imagined how they’d worked so hard to build that home. How they’d worked so hard to build that business, or get that job that they were so proud of.
I started to wonder how I might feel if that were me. If I came home and it was gone, demolished- what would I do? How might I feel?
When we arrived in Rockport, our first stop was at a BBQ restaurant. The only place in that area with running water and electricity. We unloaded supplies there, we used their bathrooms, and we picked up a few things like bug spray, working gloves, masks, and sunblock. I’m so glad they had bug spray. As soon as the bus door opened we saw mosquitos come into the bus. They were the size of my thumb nail. HUGE. Aside from not wanting to get bitten, there is a risk in getting bitten. With all of the stagnant water out, and possible sewege- there’s no telling if they carry any diseases.
We were given a description of what to expect when we arrived at the neighborhood we’d be helping. Snakes, spiders, critters, sharp objects, were just a few of the things we were warned about. A kind gentleman prayed over us and blessed us as we sat in the bus ready, and eager to work. To get our hands dirty.
We drove into the neighborhood and knew we were about to get real dirty. Harvey’s destruction left it’s mark on people’s homes. In their yards, and at every turn.
The home we were assigned to belonged to Dale and Suzy*. Their son Thomas (Tommy), had been working to clean up the mess in and around his parents home for 3 consecutive days- with little to no sleep, and not having showered in 3 days. He looked exhausted. The work looked daunting.
It didn’t take long for us to just get in there. We put our gloves on, and started making piles of brush on the streets, for city workers to collect when the time came. We formed teams. We had guys with chain saws that cut the big massive oak trees down into smaller pieces that the rest of us could drag off. It was team work. It was hard work. The heat was about 100+ degrees, and it was beating down on us. We made sure to stay hydrated and take frequent breaks in the nearby bus that was left on and provided a nice cool place of rest.
During the hottest times, it seemed like we were never going to finish. It seemed like we hadn’t made much progress. After lunch, about 2pm, we walked back to keep working. We could really see the progress we’d made then. We high-fiving each other, rooting each other on. It was almost like a second wind. We felt accomplished. We wanted to do more.
We ended up splitting off into several smaller teams. Walking the neighborhood and asking if we could help those families that were already outside doing work. One lady was outside working with her husband. When we asked if we could help, she got emotional and said yes. We all gave her a hug, got our instructions, and went to work.
At this location there was an awful smell. Some kind of stagnant water, among other things. We continued to clear debris, in the sweltering heat, in layers, with this smell- that sometimes we’d end up stepping in. It was not pretty. It was hard, it was painful, and it was HOT! About every 10 mins or so one of us felt like we were going to faint.
We’d been given a time that we needed to be back in the bus by, and as that time approached, we scurried to do the most we could in the little time we had left. Finally, we told the home owners we needed to leave. We thanked them for allowing us to help them. The man of the house was teary-eyed and asked if he could pray for us. He and his son prayed over us. It was such a simple, sweet, heart-felt prayer. He blessed us. HE blessed US.
Indeed the entire experience was a blessing. Let me explain.
After the prayer we were chatting, and this man was so grateful. So GENUINELY grateful. Not just grateful that strangers would come from 3 hours away to help him clean his yard- but grateful about how God had worked in this storm. He explained how he and his family lived so close together. His sister lived behind him, and his mother next to him. He said he and his sister had the most damage, but he and his sister have homeowners insurance and flood insurance, and they have newer homes. He said his elderly mother lives in an 80-year-old small barn that his dad built for her, and she doesn’t have any insurance. Her home was the only one in the neighborhood that didn’t get any damage, aside from a broken gutter.
What a powerful perspective. He was going to be grateful regardless of the circumstance. He was looking for something to still give God the glory for. It didn’t matter to him that he was having to clean up his yard- it was everything to him that his mother didn’t have to because she couldn’t. In more ways than one. Physically, and Financially. He wasn’t crying because the work was daunting and overwhelming, he was crying because he had the most important things that mattered- his family, his life, and now, new friends that he could share this with. He was grateful from a place that had been broken.
We all hugged him, his son, and his wife, and headed back to the bus. As I walked back, the question in my mind about how I’d feel if devastation took my home changed. It was now: Could I be as grateful if devastation took my home?
As we rode off back to the BBQ place where we’d started, we saw love on display. It was beautiful.
The city we’d driven into that morning had come alive. Teams of people had come together at every corner to cook something and offered it to each other for free. There was BBQ, there were hotdogs, there was chicken, there were sausage wraps- you name it, it was there…and it was free. At some locations there were even supplies, toiletries, clothing that were there for the taking. Texas and U.S. flags waved with pride.
It was beautiful.
We saw company trucks from other states like Florida and Oklahoma. We saw the U.S. Military.
Harvey came. Harvey destroyed many people’s homes, and changed others, but it never touched their hearts.
Humanity, as it was created to be, is alive in Rockport. Brothers and sisters unite in one common theme- love.
Regardless of state and city boundaries. Regardless of faith, of race, of political views, of ANY THING else- Love abounds.
Hurricanes, tornadoes, storms, cold fronts follow a path, where they bring destruction and fear. Love has a path too, it is contagious, it is reciprocated, it is beautiful. Yesterday we had the pleasure of being in its path, and we will forever be blessed by it.
I Corinthians 13:1-7 NLT
If I could speak all the languages of earth and of angels, but didn’t love others, I would only be a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. If i had the gift of prophecy, and if understood all of God’s secret plans and possessed all knowledge, and if I had such faith that I could move mountains, but didn’t love others, I would be nothing. If I gave everything I have to the poor and even sacrificed my body, I could boast about it; but if I didn’t love others, I would have gained nothing. Love is patient and kind. Love is not jealous or boastful or proud or rude. It does not demand its own way. It is not irritable, and it keeps no record of being wronged. It does not rejoice about injustice but rejoices whenever the truth wins out. Love never gives up, never loses faith, is always hopeful, and endures through every circumstance.
*Not exactly sure of her name-but Suzy keeps coming to mind. Someone correct me if I’m wrong 🙂 For the record: we did not have any snake, or critter encounters. Thank you Jesus.