Celebrating New Beginnings in Port Aransas, Texas
This Eastertide we celebrate the resurrection, new life and new beginnings. But on August 25, 2017 in Port Aransas, Texas, the feeling was not one of celebration but of darkness and foreboding. The skies and weather forecasts warned of Hurricane Harvey’s approach. People in this small town in the Coastal Bend of Texas didn’t know exactly what might happen, but they prepared for the worst.
“The angels of God guard us through the night, and quieten the powers of darkness.”
Parishioners at Trinity by the Sea Episcopal Church in Port Aransas secured and boarded up the church buildings as best as they could, evacuated and prayed. The Rector, The Rev. James Derkits, and his wife Laura evacuated with their son and dogs to College Station, Texas. They did not just hole up and hunker down. They reached out. They reached out in prayer, leading anyone who could get the live stream on Facebook in an evening prayer liturgy from the New Zealand Prayer Book. I saw the post on Facebook and prayed with them, not knowing what would happen, and certainly not knowing I would ever meet Father Derkits.
During the night, Hurricane Harvey hit Port Aransas with sustained winds of over 130 mph for six hours, with winds peaking at 150 mph. 80% of the buildings in the town were impacted, and 35% were destroyed. The rectory at Trinity by the Sea was one of those homes. The entire roof from a garage was lifted off of the garage and broke open the rectory roof. Two of the church buildings were destroyed. The churchyard was littered with a kayak, street signs, bay grass, and debris from destroyed homes. The church buildings themselves were damaged, and all roofs had to be replaced, but they were still standing.
Father Derkits and his family had no home to return to, but he immediately led his community in prayer. Every day since the storm, Trinity by the Sea has rung a bell to let the community know that prayers are about to begin. Morning Prayer is said from the sanctuary and streamed live on Facebook, spreading the power of prayer as far and wide as possible. Recovery begins with prayer. Before the storm, the church buildings housed the only pre-school in 30 miles. It also hosted AA meetings 7 days a week and ran a Thrift shop. Trinity by the Sea did not let the storm interrupt those vital ministries. To the contrary, it opened its heart and doors to additional ministries.
After the storm, the pre-school re-opened quickly after repairing the interior of the classrooms, and replacing damaged books and toys. It opened on October 16; in the interim, it met as a Vacation Bible School in a nearby Baptist Church for no charge to families. Episcopal Relief & Development provided funding to allow the pre-school to offer scholarships for free childcare to families in the community. The space that was once a thrift shop now houses the town’s public library. The parish hall became a distribution center for water, diapers, clothes and essentials. Dubbed “Gracemart,” this free alternative to the big box stores provided critical emergency relief to a devastated community.
The church offered space to a hair stylist whose business and home were destroyed by the storm, allowing her to continue to work. She offered free hair styling to the community. The church also provides space for a therapist to meet with individuals and families. Father Derkits continues to offer Eucharist on the beach as well as within the church walls and the AA meetings continue to meet 7 days a week.
“Jesus loves me, this I know. For the Bible tells me so.”
On February 28, 2018, I had the privilege of accompanying Presiding Bishop Curry on his pastoral visit to the areas in the Diocese of West Texas that were hit hard by Hurricane Harvey. We visited Trinity-By-the-Sea and attended chapel with the children of the pre-school. One small voice told us: “Harvey broke my house.” Father Derkits told that little boy that Harvey had broken his house too, but that the Presiding Bishop was there to encourage them and pray with them. Presiding Bishop Curry did more than pray with them. He sang with them.
Parishioners told us the stories of the storm, the damage and the ministries spawned during the aftermath. One parishioner told us: “We ooze joy and hope because we feel God’s presence.” Father Derkits explains: “Miracles and grace outweigh the disaster. God’s love is more powerful than the storm was.”
This Easter season, Trinity by the Sea gives us a living example of resurrection and new beginnings. God’s love is indeed more powerful than any storm, more powerful even than death. Alleluia!
Josephine Hicks is the Vice President for Episcopal Church Programs at Episcopal Relief & Development.
Images: Top—Josephine Hicks, Jennifer Wickham (Bishop’s Deputy for Disaster Recovery, Diocese of West Texas) and Neel Lane (Chair of the Board of Directors, Episcopal Relief & Development) in West Texas.