Southeast Texas church serves as hub for Imelda relief efforts

October 8th, 2019 / By: Jane Rodgers | Managing Editor / comments

WINNIEPastor Brian Johnson headed to the church gym at First Baptist Winnie just before midnight, Sept. 18, determined to open up the building as a shelter for victims of Tropical Storm Imelda, which inundated southeastern Texas with up to 43 inches of rain, claiming five lives.

Ankle-deep water greeted Johnson as he opened the gym door.

“The next time we open the door to people, we are going to be able to serve them. That’s what we are working for,” Johnson told the TEXAN as the church begins its recovery.

Even though its buildings proved initially unusable, FBC Winnie quickly opened its grounds to relief groups as trailers filled parking areas and 18-wheelers off-loaded and picked up supplies brought by various agencies in Imelda’s wake.

“Trucks bring materials here to be loaded on other trucks and distributed to Vidor, Hamshire, Splendora [and elsewhere],” Johnson said.

Nehemiah’s Vision brought refrigerators for storm victims; Convoy of Hope came with water, food, snacks and other supplies; Samaritan’s Purse brought teams of workers and equipment; chaplains arrived from the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association; organizations such as Shepherd’s Pie came with food. The Golden Triangle Baptist Association brought cleaning materials, including anti-mold treatment, for storm victims. Sheetrock is expected soon.

Since the storm, DR groups have shared space, gear and jobs with church members in what Johnson called a “massive undertaking” that required additional power sources. Electricians donated their time; Entergy personnel came rapidly upon request to install equipment to support the additional power usage.

The response of the disaster groups was “immediate,” Johnson said, and his flooded church became the central clearinghouse for the surrounding area, in which 80 percent of the homes were affected by the flood.

Church members began steadily volunteering with Convoy of Hope, helping to distribute water, food and materials to individuals and later, to carloads of people.

In keeping with Southern Baptist Disaster Relief practice, help also arrived in the form of a large mud-out team from the Louisiana Baptist Convention.

The crew deployed after SBTC DR Director Scottie Stice phoned his Louisiana counterpart, Gibbie McMillan, to request assistance. The Louisiana team stayed at FBC Hamshire, working there and moving, as directed, to assist other local churches such as FBC Winnie.

Stice added that SBTC DR teams from across Texas have also been joined by SBDR crews from Tennessee, Alabama, Georgia, Missouri, Oklahoma, Kentucky and TBM, while volunteers from Colorado and Utah stand ready to come.

“The priority is to get affected churches and pastors back online as soon as possible so they can minister to their communities,” Stice said.

SBDR teams helped clean out the gym and salvageable structures, including the youth building and a Sunday School wing, at FBC Winnie.

It was Johnson’s first experience with Southern Baptist DR volunteers, many of whom are retired. The pastor was at first concerned that the older volunteers might be negatively affected by the sweltering heat.

He needn’t have feared.

“Those older guys showed younger guys how to work. They didn’t quit till the job was done,” Johnson said. “They had a system: someone would measure, another would put a chalk line showing where to cut [the sheetrock].”

“They work smart,” Stice said of trained Southern Baptist DR crews.

Within days, the Louisiana team completed mudding out at the church. Miraculously, the gym’s sealed, painted plywood walls prevented water damage there.

“The water didn’t sit very long. It rolled in and out in a matter of half a day and the gym was O.K.,” Johnson said, adding that the gym walls had been tested repeatedly for moisture.

The church has adjusted its schedule, foregoing Sunday School for now and moving to a single Sunday service held in the gym at 9:30, early enough to allow members time to volunteer afterward. Wednesday nights still feature a community-wide meal, followed by adult, youth and children’s programs.

Johnson admitted that Imelda has brought higher levels of anxiety and discouragement to many.

“Everybody just got through fixing their homes [from Harvey] and then it happened again,” he said, describing the sadness of seeing piles of debris and damaged goods piled in front of houses.

Still, the pastor noted spiritual benefits from the disaster. At least a half dozen salvations have occurred as BGEA chaplains have shared the gospel with victims.

Folks have pulled together.

“I can already see how people have united, how the gospel has been shared, even our future vision of the church has been shaped,” Johnson said. “When this is all said and done, I think that we will probably be in a facility that is going to meet the needs of the community better. Anything that we build back, we’re going to build not to flood. The church will decide.”

As the community adapts to the new normal, individuals will be able to access FEMA help. Gov. Greg Abbott’s office announced Oct. 4 that President Trump had issued a Presidential Disaster Declaration for Chambers, Harris, Jefferson, Liberty, Montgomery and Orange counties.

For FBC Winnie, like many other churches, uninsured against flood, rebuilding may take time.

Johnson is not worried. He preached on Haggai following the flood, reminding the congregation of around 200 that the Lord says the gold and silver are his.

“We need to go and we need to work on building our community, on building God’s house, and if we’re faithful to follow him, God is going to provide the finances. Like I told [the congregation], I don’t know any churches that disciple people and win people to Christ that are in trouble,” Johnson said. 

Editor’s note: For more information on how to apply for Individual Assistance, residents of the six affected counties can call 1-800-621-FEMA or visit, Gov. Abbott’s office stated.