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A Texas congregation dries out its flood-damaged church, then cries and sings about the water

The Bible has plenty to say about dangerous waters. Moses and the Israelites fled Egypt through a parted Red Sea. When Jesus' disciples were at sea on a boat, rocked by the winds, Jesus walked to them on the water and told them to take courage.

And then, of course, there was the great flood that washed nearly the whole world away.

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The First United Methodist Church in Dickinson, Texas, sits on one of those nearly anonymous business strips you can find in most cities, next to a Wendy's and across the street from a car dealership and a modest community bank. But its history stretches back more than a century, including in 1900 when the original building was destroyed by a hurricane and then rebuilt.

A little over a week ago, as Hurricane Harvey bore down on Texas, senior pastor Jack Matkin canceled Sunday services, fearing the coming calamity. His assessment was correct. When Harvey arrived in this southeastern Houston suburb of nearly 20,000, the rains fell torrentially and the bayou rose precipitously.

Colbin Holtz, left, and Steven Hanks throw out damaged furniture, doorways and items as volunteers clean up First United Methodist Church.
Colbin Holtz, left, and Steven Hanks throw out damaged furniture, doorways and items as volunteers clean up First United Methodist Church. (Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

Floodwaters rushed into the church and poured into the main sanctuary. Several rows of pews were nearly underwater. When the sun finally came out again, the colored light coming through the stained glass shone down on a pool of brown water several feet deep.

When the flooding receded enough, a contingent of staff and congregants visited the church to see what Harvey had wrought, including the church's organist, Bob Simpson, 56.

"It was overwhelming at first," Simpson recalled. A second thought immediately followed: "The first thing you got to do is fix it."

And fix it they did. For several days, dozens of volunteers from Dickinson and all over Texas went to work, including people Matkin had never seen before. Everything wet had to go.

After closing for the previous Sunday, the building roared to life with the sound of pumps and shop vacuums draining the water, saws cutting up ruined pews, hammers knocking through soaked drywall, power screwdrivers to remove swollen interior doors. Files in the bottom drawers of cabinets and desks had to be thrown out.

Many soaked pews were thrown into a pile out back, and the thick wooden pew ends were stacked for storage in a front room, perhaps for a future art project.

Senior pastor Jack Matkin leads the recovery effort as volunteers ready the main sanctuary space damaged by floodwaters.
Senior pastor Jack Matkin leads the recovery effort as volunteers ready the main sanctuary space damaged by floodwaters. (Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

By Saturday night, with a few volunteers still at work, the building was mostly dry, mostly quiet — and mostly ready. A homemade sign hung out front said, "WORSHIP SUNDAY AT 11."

Pondering how to address the disaster to his congregants Sunday, Matkin, an easygoing and soft-voiced reverend with a wispy white beard, decided to go with the story of Jesus and the blind man. Jesus' disciples asked him who had sinned, the blind man or his family, and Jesus replied that no one had sinned: "This man is this way so the glory of God could be displayed in him," Matkin recounted.

"There's going to be a lot of children asking their parents why this happened," Matkin explained, standing in his church where the floodwaters used to be, the stained glass casting its colorful glow over ripped-out drywall and torn insulation.

"The storm named Harvey, on the outside, is over," Matkin said. "For many of us, there may still be a storm within. And it doesn't have to be that way. That storm within us, we can walk on top of it, or we can sink in it."

On Sunday morning, young people in shorts and T-shirts hurriedly arranged blue chairs where pews once stood. The sanctuary, associate pastor James Littleton said, was only about 6 years old. It took the congregation years to raise money for construction.

Just before the service, Phyllis Essary, 75, tended to a countertop in the lobby bearing hot coffee, pumpkin bread and muffins. All around her, people, their voices soft, asked, how are you? And they held one another.

"It's here every Sunday, to get a cup and talk," she said of the coffee. "But I think the subject of conversation is changed today."

The water crept close to Essary's home but didn't get in. She came to church because she needed to reinforce what she truly believes: that God is good. Her voice cracked, and her hazel eyes clouded. She couldn't help but wonder why this happened. Why here? Why so many people hurting?

But she was heartened to see so many people coming in. Safe. Surrounded by friends.

"It's just good," she said. "We're here. We're here."

The sanctuary was filled. There was hardly a dry eye as they sang of water:

"And I will call upon your name. And keep my eyes above the waves. When oceans rise — my soul will rest in your embrace."

Matkin called the children to the stage. Raise your hand, he said, if you have water in your house. Several hands went up. Some of you probably lost toys, he said. A few kids nodded.

Each child was handed a bottle of water that had been left over from volunteers drying out the church. They were asked to pour it in the baptismal font so that they could bless the water.

"We're going to pour water in here," Matkin said. "And you know what? If it fills up to overflowing and it floods the floor, don't worry about it."

The parishioners cheered.

Matkin told the congregation not to fall for "pop theology and TV evangelists that say Hurricane Harvey is God's judgment on sinful people or a sinful nation or a sinful city."

Focus instead, he urged, on the opportunity to help one another.

"We are called to bring deliverance from floodwaters, whether that's through … big trucks or boats or helicopters. We are called to bring healing to the hurt. To bring food and water to the hungry and thirsty. To provide a place to stay for the family, the friend, the stranger."

He told them to try to avoid saying, "I lost everything." Instead, say, "I lost all my stuff," because they still have love.

Wendy Coleman, whose house is less than a mile from the church, was one of those whose family lost all their stuff, which is now in piles on the lawn. On Saturday night, she, her son, daughter and two dogs crouched on her bed, watching the water rise around them "like Rose in 'Titanic.'"

Getting out involved multiple boats, a truck and a walk over a highway overpass in pouring rain. The family has spent the last several days gutting the house.

"Harvey Sucks 2017," she wrote in marker on the exposed sheetrock in the living room.

Coleman can't sleep, but she prays every night. She thanks God for leaving their house standing, and for sending so many people to help.

Coleman wouldn't have missed church.

"It wasn't even an option," she said. "I needed to be with my church family. My husband said we had so much to do. I told him it would still be there when we got back."

As the congregation sang, she wept. She hadn't done that in days.

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UPDATES:

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2:25 p.m., Sept. 3: This article has been updated with church service taking place.

This article was originally published at 7:10 p.m. on Sept. 2.

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