A year after Hurricane Harvey, progress is being made to repair damage at Hi-Way Tabernacle Church in Tarkington where rain pushed through the church doors and rose to about 30 inches inside the sanctuary.
“We had water coming through our church with a current. It broke the back sanctuary doors as it moved through,” said Pastor Charles Stoker. “It was devastating to see that much floodwater in the church. The water was all the way up to the pads on the pews. There were hymn books floating. Everything was ruined.”
To mitigate any further damage to the church, Stoker used towels to block off the water in the sanctuary as it spilled into the hallways, and kept the water level down by using a pump.
“I pumped water through a 3-inch pump for nine hours. I was able to keep up with the water flow,” he said.
About that same time, Stoker said he learned from Pct. 5 Constable David Hunter that the storm had forced the evacuation of some Tarkington area residents who had no place to go.
“I said, ‘Bring them here.’ He brought two to three school buses of people and dropped them off. They were staying in the rooms upstairs while all of this was going on downstairs,” the pastor said.
Though the church was never intended to be a sanctuary, no one would be turned away.
“If you are interested in helping people, and being a minister is a people business, and you take your ministry seriously, then you couldn’t ask for a better opportunity than a disaster,” he said. “We wanted people who came to us to feel like they were among family, like they were visiting kinfolk.”
Feeding the displaced families was the next challenge. Fortunately, the church had just helped with an annual teachers luncheon for Tarkington ISD and had some leftover supplies, such as food, paper plates and cups. The food supplies were meager but there was enough for an East Texas feast of pinto beans and rice.
“We were feeding about 150 people a day when we started, and that number grew to 200-250 a day,” he said. “People were coming to eat at the church because their houses were messed up and couldn’t cook.”
Emergency services personnel also stopped by to get meals before heading out to the next crisis.
“We weren’t technically a shelter but we were to a lot of people during the storm. What was I supposed to do? I am a pastor and my business is people,” he said.
Before long and after the roads cleared, help began to arrive. The My Pillow company donated hundreds of pillows and Sealy contributed mattresses. Red Cross provided 100 cots, blankets and pillows, but for the first two weeks of the shelter’s operation, beds were made using pillows pulled from the sanctuary chairs.
With all the local hotels and motels full, FEMA offered to relocate people to San Antonio or Austin, but most who stayed at the shelter weren’t willing to leave their communities to resettle elsewhere, according to Stoker.
“Out of the people in the shelter, 30 percent were age 70 or older, with several in their 80s. It was too late in life for them to relocate,” Stoker said. “We had every kind of person imaginable at the shelter. It was really awesome because we were brought together for the disaster and became one family.”
Throughout the storm and in the aftermath, Stoker held prayer services for those living at the shelter. Following the death of one shelter occupant, who arrived in already failing health, Stoker preached her funeral.
“For about five months, we housed around 80 people. The number slowed went down as people were able to find new places to live,” he said.
Two weeks into the recovery, Stoker was contacted by attorneys with the Beckett Group of Washington, D.C. They wanted to represent churches who had felt discrimination from FEMA through the agency’s Public Assistance Grant program.
While zoos, non-profits and museums qualify for the grant program, churches were denied the grants.
“We filed a lawsuit in family court in Houston. It went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. It went to Justice Neil Gorsuch and he wrote an opinion that said FEMA was discriminating against churches and synagogues because they can’t get help for their damages, even though that church has offered and assisted FEMA,” Stoker said. “The record changed FEMA’s discrimination against churches. Now that doesn’t mean they will give us any money, but we did win the case.”
Hi-Way Tabernacle decided to raise its own money for the church restoration. Other assistance came from churches in other parts of the country, including LIfe Mission in Kansas City, Mo. Bill Perez of Life Mission called Stoker one day and offered to send the church’s construction team.
The Missouri church had heard about Hi-Way Tabernacle’s troubles by reading an article on the Internet. Perez asked Stoker to get measurements of all the spaces in the church that needed repair, so he grabbed a tape measure and began.
A few days before the construction team was set to arrive, a truck carrying 400 sheets of sheetrock and lumber pulled up in front of the church.
“They even brought two lighting and sound experts. We had lost all of our sound booth and instruments to the flood. They hung all the new sheetrock in the sanctuary, replaced computers in the church offices, networked everything, put LED lights in the sanctuary, and they were here for only a week,” Stoker said. “It was absolutely amazing.”
The church now is more than halfway to completion. A new floor was poured in the sanctuary that raised the elevation by 25 inches, hopefully ensuring it never floods again.
“People who drive by our little church have no idea what happened to this place, what God has done to this church. I am amazed by it. It’s unbelievable unless you were here and lived through it,” he said.