Saturday, September 20, 2008

The Church Stands: Galveston's Historic AME Church Will Survive Its 2nd Hurricane

In today's Houston Chronicle Co-pastor Salatheia Bryant-Honors wrote the following eye-witness account of the damage Hurricane Ike did to Galveston's historic Reedy Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church--the first AME church in Texas, started in 1848 as a worship place for slaves--and of the church's determination to recover from Ike, just as it recovered from the Great Storm of 1900.

I haven't heard much yet about damage to other churches in Galveston or around Galveston Bay. The website of St. Mary's Basilica Cathedral in Galveston says that it had about eight feet of water, but the extent of the damage has not been reported.

Wouldn't it be nice if the Houston-area houses of worship that had little or no damage from Ike would organize an interfaith fund-raising and volunteer effort to help all the churches that had serious damage with recovery and repairs?

GALVESTON - I had to see her for myself.

I wanted to see her Saturday morning when Hurricane Ike's wind and rain finally stopped pounding our Houston home. But I couldn't. I tried to get there Monday, only to be turned around at a checkpoint in Texas City. Despite my plea that I was a minister and wanted - no, needed - to check on the church, I was told, "No one is being allowed on the island.''

Reedy Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church is a Texas historic landmark. It's also cited on the National Register of Historic Places for its architectural significance.

But much more intimately, Reedy Chapel is my family's second home. It is where my husband, Reginald Honors, and I together pastor a small flock of faithful believers - some whose affiliation with Reedy extends back four generations - who have dedicated themselves to keeping their church going.

Reedy Chapel was the first African Methodist Episcopal Church in Texas. This distinction earns it the title of the mother church of African Methodism in Texas. But its history is larger than that.

Trustees of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, purchased the lot on Broadway at 20th in 1848 as a worship site for black slaves. Until a building was constructed, the slaves held services outdoors. Once ownership of the property was transferred to freed blacks after the Civil War, they organized as an African Methodist Episcopal Church. The original building was ravaged in the 1885 Galveston fire. Rebuilding was hampered by four storms that hit the island in 1886. The rebuilt structure was completed in 1887. Then came the Great Storm of 1900, which severely damaged the church again.

Hurricane Ike manhandled the Texas coast six months after we celebrated our 160th church anniversary.

After days of wondering, hoping and praying, I got a chance to see her Wednesday, the day we normally would have held Bible study.

The venerable edifice stood surrounded by debris in the eerie emptiness of the city. Two waterlogged Bibles that came to rest face-down on the front steps served as welcome mats for Ike's wicked visit to this sacred structure. The metal gate on the front door held, but the heavy wooden doors had been breached.

I wasn't ready for what awaited me inside the sanctuary. In my worst-case scenario I had been overly optimistic. Now a sad, sick feeling engulfed me.

Inside, the fire alarm was dying a slow death. It still managed a faint beep. The freshly stripped and polished wooden floor that our church trustees worked so hard to finish before our August men's and women's day program was covered with some gray substance. I could smell the backup of sewage.

Rows of pews had been knocked over like dominoes. Some were broken. My rubber boots, the ones I bought to cover Hurricane Rita as a reporter, sank into the mud-slick carpet that held the surge water like a sponge. We had just purchased and installed that carpet about five weeks ago. A distinct and dark line marked the water's highest point in the sanctuary — about 3 to 4 feet from the floor.

The hymnals donated over the years by two sisters — both retired teachers — were not spared. Neither were the pew Bibles. A Communion cup found a resting place on a sliver of a ledge near the choir loft. A candy dish that usually sits on a small table by the pulpit was on the floor about 12 feet away. Oddly, it was right side up, with all the strawberry Creme Savers candies still inside.

At every turn there was a new revelation.

Upstairs one of the stained-glass windows was blown out; two others were barely hanging on. A door in the ladies' restroom was so swollen from the deluge that it could not be opened. Outside, one side of the decorative eaves in the front of the church dangled from the roof. A similar piece was ripped off in the rear.

But priceless pieces survived Ike: a handmade baptismal font, the circular chandeliers, an 1872 pipe organ and the archives room that chronicles the life of the church and its people.

Hurricane Ike hurled its best blow, but Reedy Chapel stood. I am truly grateful for her survival.

As the storm churned in the Gulf, my husband and I were concerned about the well-being of church members. We spent Thursday and Friday calling each member to determine where he or she planned to ride out the storm. We are thankful for their safety.

Our members are scattered now in Austin, San Antonio, Waco, Missouri City and Baton Rouge, La. Even Kentucky. The first couple we welcomed in the new-members' class after we were appointed pastors had come to Galveston after Hurricane Katrina. They fled Galveston for Beaumont as Ike approached. They since have landed back in New Orleans.

Hurricane Ike has left us with questions: When will members be able to return to the church they love and have sacrificed for? Where will we meet in the interim? Is there serious structural damage my untrained eye didn't spot?

We look forward to the day when our wonderful senior choir again sings Great Is Thy Faithfulness from the choir loft. I long to see Sister Florence Henderson — who never misses a Sunday — in her usual seat, midway down the aisle on the left side, and the stewardesses — Anne Chatman, Esther Harrell, Ruby Douglass and Sandra Mitchell — dressed in white.

This past March, Reedy was packed with members of A.M.E. churches from across Texas for our anniversary service. Presiding Bishop Gregory G.M. Ingram preached a sermon titled "Let's Celebrate." Galveston Mayor Lyda Ann Thomas was there for the celebration. She sat on a front row. It was a happy day.

As I took my parting look at the sanctuary Wednesday, my eyes focused on the message posted on our bulletin: "Men and women moving forward with divine authority." It changed my outlook.

Yes, indeed, Reedy will move forward. Reedy stands on something greater than a physical foundation.

This grand structure has endured its share of hardships and always found her way back. It has survived hurricanes and fire to remain a constant shelter from the storms of life for those in need of a spiritual haven.

I agree with longtime member Janice Stanton that Reedy will come back stronger and better than ever. History is on Reedy's side. It is a history laced with struggle and rebirth.

We also have the Christian heritage that reminds us that our faith is about resurrection. Our faith is about the worst thing happening but not overcoming us. We also have the African-American narrative that tells us that God will see us through.

The words on our outdoor sign remind me of that intertwining legacy: "Upon this Rock I will build my church." Indeed, our hope is built on nothing less.

In March, when we held our anniversary service, we entered the sanctuary singing, "We've come this far by faith, leaning on the Lord."

Reedy still has miles to go on her journey.

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