The early morning fog was just beginning to roll away, evaporating in the presence of a breath-taking sunrise. There was no indication in the air of what transpired a week earlier. Still, the disruptive remnants of an ominous hurricane that swept through the Gulf Coast littered every square inch of Houston with debris. As hard as everyone had worked in the past week there would be no masking the massive devastation in the aftermath of Ike.
I was traveling to my church with the youth pastor to meet up with five other men in an outreach effort to help restore businesses on Galveston Island. Galveston was among several areas hit extremely hard by the hurricane personified by a three-letter man’s name; and, yes, as far as I could tell, Tina was right, Ike was exceptionally abusive.
Everyone on board the ministry van sat in an anomalous silence, decorated with calf-high rubber boots, chemical-ready gloves, bacteria masks and armed with shovels. I’m not sure if the silence was apart of the “man thing” or if it was the effect of an announcement that we might encounter dead bodies when we reached our destination. I’m sure it was just a coincidence that they waited to tell us this insignificant detail after everyone was loaded on the van and the doors were welded shut. Just kidding.
We met up with the family that we would be assisting at an exit a few miles north of Galveston. We needed their escort to get through an armed checkpoint just before the causeway to the island. This family owned a business on the island and possessed one of the cherished passes to gain entrance to the city. Business owners had priority because residents could not return to their homes without the support of local establishments that would provide food and water, clothing, gas, and other commodities.
While we waited to get through the checkpoint everyone noticed the uninviting pile of rubbish and waste that lined both sides of one of the busiest freeways in Texas. It appeared as though some type of bulldozer had pushed the mass of boats, refrigerators, furniture, roofs and anything else a person could think of to the side of the road. People’s lives were literally displaced and displayed for the whole world to view. The day after the storm the news media captured aerial photos of this same locale and it was entirely impassable. It looked like a scene from one of those old World War II movies—only in color. In fact, if this island were one of the hottest vacation spots in Texas no one could tell. This place looked more like…well just fill in the blank.
There was a point in the awkward silence when every man probably reminisced the festive times with family and friends at this famous tourist destination. Now the memories were swallowed up by the obvious resemblance of some type of war zone—and let me tell you, the people of Galveston had lost this battle, but you couldn’t tell the residents this fact, nor that the war had ended. They were still fighting with unfeigned vigor to save their beloved city. The tears never surfaced but converged into strength to complete an undefined mission—and, of course, there was no use for more water, if even in the form of tears.
Upon entering the downtown district it looked like the lost city of Atlantis—drained and dry. Only a few vehicles were on the streets and more than half were military humvees and convoys of city officials assessing damage. Several times every hour military and civilian helicopters flew over the saturated area looking for only God knows what—I think we can use our imagination. Several “Disaster Recovery Teams,” and I use that term loosely, from just about every government agency, insurance company, and even ministry were spotted taking scenic site-seeing tours throughout the crippled city. Everyone proudly displayed their name with 1-hour photo magnets on the sides of their vehicles, but few displayed a genuine compassion for the hurting residents. Even fewer displayed this compassion without putting the name of their organization up in lights!
Save for the emergency workers and government officials Galveston was essentially a ghost town—and it fostered an eerie feeling. At one point, I think I saw tumbleweed, no actually it was seaweed, spinning down the desolate streets. It felt like I was inside a movie visiting the set of a deserted 1800’s western town. Yes, Galveston was not the same that we all had remembered.
Oh…did I forget to mention the mud? Mud had made a special cameo appearance in Galveston, and it was everywhere. At the end of the day it had even hitched a ride home with us. This strange stench-filled mixture of sand, sewer and salty seawater, and other unidentifiable elements, made the nostrils burn and repelled everything but rats and roaches. Nevertheless, we had a mission to complete.
Every member of our team, the New Life Church Hurricane Relief Squad (I’m being funny), filed out of the ministry van and we split up into two groups. One group was sent to clean up a loft in a downtown apartment that had sustained severe roof damage and the other group headed to a clothing business on The Strand, which was once one of the busiest districts of Galveston.
After a few moments examining some of the buildings on The Strand, we quickly took notice of the brutal water damage. Almost every building had been inundated with seven to ten feet of water as a result of the hurricane’s immense and forewarned storm surge. Inside every building was a putrid odor that made the strongest man gag. Even the so-called “fresh air” outside the structures was pervaded by this mold-like smell. We were all reminded of the blessing, and at times devastating effects, of water.
I could go on with more disgusting adjectives and fillers to describe the decrepit conditions and what we saw, but that would not accomplish much. In fact, I really want to share with you the story of the rotting fish, but I’ll leave that alone for now. This one-day journey was much more than a physical restoration. We had several opportunities to minister to the people that were affected by this storm. After we broke for lunch, and I do need to give props to the Salvation Army, who fed us all lunch and dinner with their mobile kitchen (so give to the door dinger at Christmas), I noticed a gentleman cleaning out his family’s business across the street. He was sitting down on the curb with his hands on his face, looking down at the dried mud, and seemingly staring into what used to be an avenue filled with foot traffic leading to his dream. He sat next to the entire inventory of his store now covered in sludge, awaiting the trash man, and you could see the overwhelming depression emulating from him. I sat down next to him and…just listened.
I want to steer away from taking any recognition for anything that occurred on our expedition. I realize very distinctly that the only thing that could take away what we had done in that place is pride. I just want to say that we all had opportunities to witness our faith. Some preached without opening their mouths and others were very vociferous, but both were necessary.
Some members of our team witnessed and prayed with a woman who was a practicing Buddhist. In one of the buildings we were privileged to be able to share the reason we had come to Galveston with several paid workers that had come from Atlanta, Georgia. I believe very strongly that we impacted these peoples lives. They were astounded that we were simply volunteering our time and energy to do such a grotesque job without getting any money. Oh, but what they do not know. A bank account in heaven, not made or balanced with the hands of any man, has a little more treasure in it today—and it will never rust, or fade away.
We were workers for eternity—not a man, not a government agency, and not a ministry. We give all glory to the King of all kings for the opportunity to help just a few on this earth. We all gave of ourselves, just a little, to fulfill the Great Commission of going out and preaching the Gospel to all people (Mark 16). That is the least we could have done in light of all that Christ Jesus has done for us.
Moreover, if I could give anyone advice in whether they should give of themselves to serve in this type of capacity, this is all I can say:
I want to go back right now.