Rockport: Hunting Harvey and Seeing Jesus
"Endurance," said the young church leader. "Pray we have endurance."
Picking up one bit of debris. One shingle. One puff of roofing insulation. One light bulb blown out of what up until Harvey had been a ceiling. When looking around a town leveled by a Cat 4 storm, each piece of debris seems less than a grain a sand from the Gulf Shore.
I hadn’t planned on spending my day in Rockport helping pick up debris (and later, folding t-shirts for other volunteers). Didn’t really know what I was going to do. Survey the area from the safety of my SUV? Write a story? Wander the wrecked streets bemoaning the randomness and awfulness of it all?
My nephew, in the region to investigate the damage Harvey did to boating, had laid out several points on a map along the coast from Corpus Christi to where FEMA was staging its operations. Yet I felt Rockport was where I had to go. Why “had,” I don’t know. Once I hit town I knew I wasn’t going anywhere.
Harvey slammed into Rockport as a Category 4 hurricane, the most powerful storm to strike Texas in more than half a century. The monster winds and seas turned much of the quiet coastal tourist town to kindling. And as the L.A. Times put it, “Everything that’s standing leans.”
However, what becomes immediately clear is how much the residents are leaning on one another. I first stopped at a little information stand set up outside Rockport’s Chamber of Commerce office. A woman wearing a blue Church Unlimited t-shirt was manning the stand.
After being given directions where to take some donated clothes we had culled together, I asked how she was doing.” The woman sighed and managed a weak smile. “Our house was messed with. We spend the day helping others then go home to work on our own.” (Get used to that sentiment. It’s everywhere down there.)
She sent me to 99 Austin St. That’s the closest place donations were being taken. Apparently some folks just showed up and started taking in and handing out supplies out of a still-standing shop. You could bungee jump off the stack of water bottle cases piled outside. A couple more people in Church Unlimited t-shirts were bustling about. “The volunteers gather at the church,” one said, more as a direction than a random piece of information.
Damage and Defiance
I wandered up and down the desolate Austin Street and nearby roads. The two words that keep coming to mind are “damage” and “defiance.” Wreckage was everywhere along that strip of little shops. Mayor Charles Wax said after the storm that some 35% of the buildings in Rockport were completely destroyed. Another 30% will never be occupied again.
Somehow, the Quick & Save was open. A generator was powering the soda and beer cases, and a sign loudly announced “We Have Ice.” In the Texas summer heat in a town with no electricity, that’s better than saying “We’ve struck gold.”
However, right next door, the Bay Wash laundrymat was ripped in half.
An art and jewelry store was flattened. At least this business was recognizable as having been a business. The next lot over about the only thing recognizable was a single chair.
Yet just down the street, the Rowdy Maui mart was not just standing, but showing off that famous Texas grit and swagger.
An L.A. Times reporter who had surveyed the scene right after the storm was struck by the good humor of Rockport residents despite the disaster. I didn’t spot much levity by the time I got there. But I did spot barbecue.
The Real Estate Barbecue
Texas may be the only spot on the planet where volunteers in a natural disaster leave heavier than when they arrived. As I approached the church, Church Unlimited, I could see a canopy set up and a series of barbecue grills and smokers at work. A line of residents and volunteers stretched down the sidewalk.
The canopy and shirts of those dishing out the barbecue read “Option 1 Real Estate.” “Aw, how nice of that real estate company to pay for someone to do all this barbecue for people!” I had forgotten I was in Texas. Where other kids get toys and crayons, they get tongs and barbecue brushes.
Turns out the owner himself, Jason Campbell, is a champion barbecuer. “What in the world are you doing selling real estate?” I said after sampling his wares. “You ought to open a restaurant!”
“Nah,” he said. “Too much work.” He just barbecues for house openings, Christian events and when he can be of service.
Now to the real meat of things. The barbecue stand was situated in front of Church Unlimited. Yet I could not see the church sign at first because it was blocked by a huge banner from Operation Blessing. The church was hosting the Christian crisis relief organization’s efforts in town. And the effort was humming. Teams of volunteers were tossing on Operation Blessing t-shirts, and getting briefed on their specific assignments.
I noticed several donning the shirts did so over the Church Unlimited shirts. “Man, these people are all over this!” I remember thinking. Their church looked pretty intact, and having seen a fenced off church around the corner I was grateful God had spared this one to enable their congregation to help out their town.
You’ve heard of Burning Man? This is Burning to Serve Man.
Standing at the sign-in table, I found myself offering my assistance. I was given my first trash bag and the t-shirt to mark me as a volunteer. Going back and forth, I got a chance to meet Carolina. A white-haired Texan handling things at the table like a pro. Turns out this was her first time volunteering here. She and her husband had often vacationed in Rockport. “So I told my husband, ‘I’m going.'”
Soon after, another Texan, a rugged buck straight out of a country music video, ambles up. “We’re here,” he declared like a lawman in a John Ford Western. “Got my 17 guys, five generators and a smoker.” Again. It is Texas.
He would hardly be the last volunteer. Operation Blessing was expecting thousands of volunteers to show up last Saturday. Thousands. That’s not including people brought in by Samaritan’s Purse or any of the other Christian relief groups that had rolled into town. You’ve heard of Burning Man? This is Burning to Serve Man. And this includes those who needed to be served themselves.
A woman came up to sign the request for a work order. Her home had been damaged, as had a property she had just purchased across the street. She was filling out the paperwork to get an Operation Blessing team out to her house to help with clean-up and whatever else. Ten minutes she’s filling out the pages. And the second she drops the pen, she stands up, brushes herself off. “So, where can I donate?”
I’d been there two full hours when God decided the time had come to lift the veil. I finally noticed a second door into the church a bit down the sidewalk. A volunteer was entering it, carrying his container of barbecue. Curious, I wandered down.
I entered a marvel and a horror. This was the church sanctuary. And half of the roof was gone. Just gone. Nothing but sky and a palm tree.
Even more stunning: the dozens of new shovels lined up on the far wall. Weapons in the war to clear Rockport of Harvey’s effects. Oh, if the media had seen that sancturary rather than obsessed over Joel Osteen’s church!
Their own house of worship lay wrecked. A far corner of the church had collapsed as well. Yet, the people of Church Unlimited were busting tail all over town to help others before tending to themselves, both as individuals and as a body. Services would take place Sunday in the parking lot.
“Oh, my God,” was all I could manage, humbled beyond measure.
A leader with the church stood in the center of the sanctuary. Weariness etched on his young face. He probably hadn’t slept in weeks. “What do you need?” I asked, “What can Stream readers be praying for?” He paused. “Endurance. Pray for endurance.” They were showing Jesus to the community. But could the congregation continue showing Jesus to one another over the long, stressful haul?
So I ask you to pray endurance for our brothers and sisters. Our prayers will help them continue as one, as Jesus commanded us to be one. We can help fortify those blue shirts as they bring the living Christ to their community, and their community back to life.
Did the Lord bring me to Rockport to pick up debris? No. More likely to pick up what it truly means to lay oneself down for others.
Back at my hotel, two Rockport evacuees were talking over breakfast. Marveling over how few were killed in Rockport; how many volunteers were pouring into town; how people were helping one another. “So many miracles,” the man said in deep-felt gratitude.
Indeed. Harvey may have knocked the roof off of Rockport, but Jesus released the light out.
Click here learn more about Church Unlimited (or if you feel led to help financially)
Click here to learn more about Operation Blessing (or if you feel led to help financially)
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