Hugs, prayers, cupcakes with volunteers

Disaster response teams find much more than just construction in area damaged by Hurricane Harvey.

BY CAROL FOUKE-MPOYO | March 18, 2018

Joshua Lawrence, UCC's Harvey recovery co-coordinator, and a homeowner.
Credit: UCC Disaster Ministries

Disaster volunteers are providing the labor to rebuild homes damaged during Hurricane3 Harvey as they build new relationships with the survivors.

Those relationships are evident at the United Church of Christ (UCC) Disaster Ministries' new worksite in Port Arthur, TX.

"We bring our tools, dollars and skills, but not just those. We also bring love, hugs and the oil of human kindness," said Bill Matten of Boalsburg, Pa. He and his wife Ellen, UCC Penn Central Conference Disaster Coordinators, spent February in Port Arthur as UCC Partners in Service, helping ready the local worksite for volunteers.

Three volunteer work teams have arrived since then, with a fourth scheduled to arrive March 18. The groups are hammering and scraping, plastering and painting, restoring 17 low- to middle-income affordable rental properties swamped by two to four feet of water as Hurricane Harvey drenched southeastern Texas last August.

The rental housing is managed by the nonprofit Southeast Texas Community Development Corporation ("SETCDC"). Founded in 1993 by a member of Plymouth Congregational UCC in Beaumont, SETCDC has its offices at the church, and co-pastors, the Revs. Matt and Rhonda Hopson, serve as president and board member, respectively.

"As the volunteers restore the properties, they are helping bring individuals and families to sustainability," Matt Hopson said. "Their hearts are being touched by our story, and many have been in contact since they finished their week of service and returned home."

Volunteers at the UCC's Port Arthur worksite are immersed in a community with a rich history and deep Christian faith. "We've never been prayed over as much as during our month in Port Arthur," Matten said. "A prayer circle formed around every obstacle, setback and discouragement."

SETCDC and Plymouth Congregational have provided birthday cupcakes, Valentine's Day roses and farewell barbeques for their guests.

Hurricane Harvey is tied with Hurricane Katrina as the costliest tropical cyclone on record, killing at least 88 and inflicting an estimated $125 billion in damage.

UCC Disaster Ministries reached out quickly after Harvey to Gulf Coast pastors. Working with the UCC's South Central Conference, UCC Disaster Ministries hired a Houston couple - the Rev. Joshua Lawrence and Amariee Collins - to coordinate the UCC's Harvey recovery for two years.

The denomination helped recruit work teams for "muck and gut" and rebuilding sites in Louisiana and in Houston and Clear Lake, Texas, then turned to Port Arthur's struggles and SETCDC's needs.

Hurricane Harvey put 75 percent of Port Arthur under water, Matt Hopson said. The city has yet to get all of its Harvey debris picked up, and many homes still need to be cleaned out.

"Opening a recovery site in Port Arthur fits the UCC's commitment to care for historically underserved communities," said UCC Disaster Ministries Executive Zach Wolgemuth. Once a beacon of commerce, Port Arthur is now in precarious condition after years of economic recession and job outsourcing.

An $80,000 grant from UCC Disaster Ministries is helping pay for construction materials and to hire Matt's brother Herman Hopson, a retired carpenter, as a temporary site construction manager. The UCC's Penn Northeast Conference has loaned two tool trailers to the rebuilding effort and retired UCC pastor the Rev. Paul Longstreth of Houston is lending his time and talents as volunteer coordinator.

Once the 17 units are restored, SETCDC hopes to continue the work to add to its stock of safe, affordable housing in Port Arthur, Hopson said. Conversations and plans with UCC Disaster Ministries are already underway for the second phase of the response.

Joshua Lawrence, the UCC's Harvey recovery co-coordinator, added, "We will soon convene Port Arthur community leaders for a presentation on long-term recovery, including a spiritual care piece. And we will continue to help SETCDC expand its mission."

Become a disaster recovery volunteer, or support the

UCC Emergency USA Fund.

The original version of this article appeared on the UCC Website.

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