Out of Deep Waters: Diocese of Texas rises to the 'Katrina' occasion

September 15, 2005

As more than 1,500 emergency hygiene kits piled up in the hallway of St. David's Episcopal Church in Austin, Texas, cooks in church kitchens throughout the Diocese of Texas gathered to prepare meals for evacuees in shelters and motels along the highways from New Orleans to Houston.

Episcopal churches partnered with local aid and ecumenical groups to provide specific needs up and down the Louisiana border and far into Texas.

While Houston has absorbed the lion's share of evacuees, the diocese's smaller towns are full as well. Orange, with a population of 18,400, is located in the southeast corner of Texas on the western bank of the Sabine River, which separates Texas from Louisiana. St. Paul's, Orange, reports that the community has become more ecumenical than ever before. A local school is home to 1,000 evacuees and more are in motels.

St. Paul's helped one evacuee celebrate the pending birth of her first child with a baby shower. They replaced many of the items the new baby will need, which were lost in the hurricane. The young mother shared pictures of her hurricane-ravaged home, a rocking chair from the nursery she had so lovingly prepared, dangled from the shredded back porch.

Volunteers across the diocese appeared at shelters with armloads of towels, sheets and pillows and stayed to help sort donations and offer encouragement to the bruised and battered hurricane victims.

Long term commitment to help

Fourth grade students at Holy Spirit Episcopal School, Houston, collected "Pennies for Hope" during carpool and at lunch September 7. Kindergarten through 5th graders at Holy Cross School, Sugar Land, wrote cards and notes to the children displaced by the hurricane. "We love you and hope you get to go home soon," the cards read.

In Lake Jackson, children at St. Timothy's gathered stuffed animals and games to entertain a number of evacuees who came to the church for a meal. "There were a lot of significant conversations in which people here were able to offer comfort, support and practical help to many of our guests," said the Rev. Liz Parker, assistant rector at St. Timothy's.

"This is only the beginning of a long term commitment to help," she added.

Seven evacuees who began junior high school in Beaumont were given physicals at the Episcopal clinic, Ubi Caritas, so that they would be able to play sports. "We have provided whatever the specific needs have been," said Ubi's executive director, Clark Moore. "We've gathered furniture, food and encouragement for these folks. Their courage is inspiring to all of us."

In Houston, initial confusion has been replaced with an incredibly smooth operation at the George R. Brown Convention Center. Volunteers have remained flexible as the needs and plans change daily.

Episcopalians in the Diocese of Texas have partnered with a large interfaith group to volunteer for a week's feeding program at the Convention Center. Cost to feed the evacuees will run more than $1 million for the week. More than 375 volunteers are needed for each of three shifts and another 100 for the 10pm-4am "graveyard" shift.

Members of St. John the Divine in Houston have worked for more than a week volunteering at the Convention Center, one of Houston's largest shelters. They needed 200 meals at breakfast, lunch and dinner for the medical staff who don't have time to leave their posts to eat. Palmer Memorial, Houston, stepped in to help. They have served more than 2,000 meals this week to evacuees at the church near Houston's Astrodome and in nearby motels.

One hundred fifty miles northwest in Austin, seminarians from the Episcopal Theological Seminary of the Southwest joined Austin clergy as chaplains at the Austin Convention Center where 4,000 evacuees are housed. Seminarian Catherine Boyd said one evacuee was separated from her husband and son and only later located them in Arkansas.

"When it was time to evacuate and get on the planes, there wasn't any time to get together," Boyd said, describing how the parents had carried their kids on their shoulders through chest-deep water. When evacuees arrived in Austin, their old clothes were collected and disposed of as hazardous materials.

Another seminarian, Ede Plovanich, who is from the Gulf Coast, showed up to volunteer as a chaplain, but when officials found out she was a pharmacist, they put her to work in the CVS pharmacy truck.

"The needs change daily and the churches just keep responding," said Sally B. Rutherford, diocesan outreach coordinator. "It's been a tremendous outpouring of support so far and we are prepared to hang in there for the long haul," she added.