The disaster has happened. It is a concrete fact that cannot be altered or undone. A bright day turned to shadow, and by the time the clouds lifted, everything had changed. In the wake of tragedy, the question is “What happens next?”
This describes the experience we have all just had. It also describes, exactly, where Moses finds himself in today’s reading from Exodus. The Book of Genesis ended on a sunny and bright note. Jacob and his sons had left their land of famine and traveled to Egypt, where they not only discovered grain in plenty, but also Joseph, Jacob’s lost son, who had risen in rank from slave to become the governor of all Egypt. But Joseph died, and over time the relationship of the Egyptians to the Hebrews soured. Jacob’s descendants became an underclass, and then slaves, and finally, when Pharaoh felt threatened by their numbers, he killed their baby boys. Sunlight turned to shadow.
Moses survived because his mother’s love was as shrewd as it was powerful, and Moses was raised as an Egyptian. As he grew, Moses despaired at the conditions all around him, and he eventually fled, until, Exodus tells us today, he was “beyond the wilderness.” This is biblical speak for telling us Moses was out of options, and so frayed he couldn’t think straight, and all alone, and on the very edge of panic. Moses wondered in his exhaustion, “What happens next?”
Very like us. Skies were sunny, and Houston was a shining emblem of that which is good in our country. And then the world ended. Beginning Saturday a week ago, and continuing for days, Houston experienced more than fifty-one inches of rain. That’s more than twenty-four trillion gallons, breaking every U.S. record. Harvey also retained tropical storm force longer than any storm in Texas history. If Harvey’s rain had been snow, the snow would have reached forty-two feet. That’s level height, not snow drifts.[i] More than three hundred thousand people have already applied for FEMA relief. Forty-two thousand people are presently housed in shelters. Forty people have died. Rockport was devastated. Beaumont drowned. One runs out of superlative adjectives to describe things, and then one simply runs out of the energy to speak at all. By last Monday night, many Texans, including a fair number of our own parishioners—including the roughly three hundred downtown homeless who rely on the Beacon for water and food—were out of options, and so frayed they couldn’t think straight, and all alone, and on the very edge of panic. We all wondered, “What happens next?”
For Moses, what happens next is most unexpected. In the wake of disaster, beyond the wilderness, when everything is stripped bare, Moses meets God. God appears in a bush that burns but is not consumed, and we mustn’t let the power of that metaphor escape us: The powers of nature are great and fierce, but they cannot touch the power of God. God says to Moses the very words Moses longs to hear. God says, “I have seen the misery of my people. I have heard them crying out. I know their suffering. And I have come to deliver them.” Sweeter words were never spoken. Sweeter words were never heard.
But lest Moses exhale, relieved that God will deliver him and his kinsman and wondering vaguely how God will accomplish this, in God’s very next utterance God says to Moses, “I will send you.”
Very like us. By Tuesday morning, flotillas of boats replaced this city’s deluged cars. The George R. Brown opened its doors. The Coast Guard sent helicopters. And thousands upon thousands of Houstonians responded to the call of God. “What happens next?” we ask. And God responds, “I will send you.”
I want to tell you some stories. On Wednesday morning, I worked the breakfast shift at the George R. Brown. As I visited with people, hearing their experiences, a man in street clothes named Bob Merrill approached me to tell me that he is a bi-vocational Episcopal priest. The Red Cross is afraid that clergy volunteers will try to proselytize (even though I explained to them that Episcopalians don’t really do that), and I said to Bob, “You were smart not to wear your collar; the Red Cross won’t question you.” To which Bob responded, “Oh, I don’t have my collar. I was flooded out. I’m mainly here as an evacuee, but I’m also trying to help.” He’d lost everything, and his first instinct was to his calling: I will send you.
Chris and Allison Bells’ home was flooded this week for the third time in as many years, but, as for everyone, this time was far worse. The Bells’ flood drill had almost become routine, and Chris, Alison, Atlee, and Connally moved to the second story as the water crept in. But this time the water didn’t stop rising. Eventually, a boat plucked Chris and Alison, their sons, and their dogs from the house, but next the Bells’ endured a rain-soaked ride in the back of a county dump truck before being left on the side of the road shivering alone in darkness. (Be in that moment for just a second.) Finally, the headlamps of a jeep emerged, and a young man name Brandon, a stranger, picked up the Bells and navigated a slow path to safety. The Bells’ saga was long, meandering, and frightening, but when I talked to Chris two days later, this is what stayed with him. These are Chris’ words, “Every time I [think of] Brandon, our rescuer, I start tearing up. It’s overwhelming when one realizes there really are saints among us. He came from nowhere at a time when four people and three dogs were incredibly cold and helpless. Perhaps not from nowhere.” God says, I will send you.
One more: Throughout the storm, I worried about the Cathedral campus. I take the stewardship of this historic and sacred space very seriously, and I feared both flood waters and bad actors. On Sunday, our head sexton, Ardell Ray, had made it to the Cathedral before the water rose too much. But on Monday Ardell had to go back home to check on his own house, and he barely made it; his car nearly stalled in water on the way. So, on Monday afternoon I put on my rain boots and decided to try and drive downtown to check on the Cathedral myself. Before I could do so, Ardell called. (Which is odd. Ardell takes my calls, but he rarely calls me.) He was on his bicycle, pedaling through the city in the storm at a snail’s pace, making his way back downtown to protect this holy place. “Dean,” Ardell said, “You don’t have to worry about a thing. I’m going to take good care of it.” And God says, I will send you.
When God tells Moses that Moses is to be the instrument of deliverance, Moses’ momentary relief turns to anxiety and terror. Moses is inadequate to the task, he says. He has not the voice, the skill, or the will to do what God says must be done. And God does not disagree. But rather than removing the responsibility from Moses, God gives Moses Aaron, recognizing that none of us can navigate the storms, and none of us can deliver one another, without all of us.
God hears our cry. God takes note of our suffering. And though the power of Hurricane Harvey was mighty, it was no match for God. “I will send you,” God says to us. So, what happens next?
Here’s what happens: Fellow parishioner Seth Hinkley has accepted the call to serve as our Cathedral Hurricane Relief Coordinator and parishioner Gary Krause has agreed to assist Seth. Beginning tomorrow, Seth and Gary will coordinate all of our parish relief efforts. The email at which to reach them is firstname.lastname@example.org.
We will have ample resources with which to do this work. In the past five days, the Cathedral has received more than twenty thousand dollars in hurricane relief contributions, and more funds are streaming in. Every dollar will be used to help those in need. We will help with housing; we will help with transportation; we will help with groceries; we will help in whatever ways help is needed.
We will open the Ballard Youth Center as temporary housing for relief and restoration work crews from across the country in the coming weeks and months.
These things we will do, but we have not waited until now to respond to God’s call. Since the middle of last week, Cathedral work crews, under the able foremanship of Jeremy Bradley, are every day helping our parishioners tear out soaked carpet and drywall and moving belongings to safer places. Additionally, we have matched parishioners who are displaced from their homes in temporary housing with parishioners who have a garage apartment or available guest room.
We have also compiled a list of parish attorneys, who have graciously offered their knowledge pro bono to assist those dealing with the arcane language of FEMA or insurance.
We’ve made plans for The Beacon temporarily to expand its mission, to offer service seven days a week rather than five, and to serve three meals per day rather than one. This will, by the way, require our parishioners—those of us here in this room—to step forward and volunteer, especially Tuesdays and Wednesdays, which are days The Beacon is normally closed. Register to volunteer on The Beacon’s web site, http://www.beaconhomeless.org.
And, we’re working far beyond our parish boundaries. At the Bishop’s request, the Cathedral has taken the lead in organizing a network of Episcopal parishes throughout the city, including St. Martin’s, St. John the Divine, Palmer, St. Mark’s, Trinity, St. Francis, and Holy Spirit, to connect aid with needs across the city in the most efficient and effective way. Our CUSE director, Christy Orman, has been named Hurricane Relief Administrator for this effort. The results of this work will have an enormous long-term impact on Houston’s recovery.
In the wake of disaster, beyond the wilderness, when everything is stripped bare, the God whom fire cannot consume and water cannot drown comes to us and says, “I will send you.” God is calling now—us, this Cathedral, this community of disciples—and he does not send us alone. We are Christ Church together, and we will see the dawn.
[i]“Exactly how much rain Harvey has brought to Houston, elsewhere in Texas.” The San Diego Tribune, August 29, 2017.