In-Depth

A Storm, A Death, A Pandemic: Houston Church Still On The Road To Recovery 3 Years After Harvey

Emmanuel Episcopal Church finally has a new home after being flooded in 2017 – but they still can’t worship there.

Houston just narrowly escaped another storm almost exactly on the third anniversary of Hurricane Harvey. And even three years later, one Houston congregation that was flooded during Harvey is just now getting back up.

The old Emmanuel Episcopal Church still stands on the corner of Memorial Drive and Eldridge Parkway in the Energy Corridor.

From the outside, it isn’t obvious that the church took four feet of water after Harvey doused Houston for days in late August 2017. But peek through the glass doors and you see the walls stripped to beams and studs throughout the three buildings: the sanctuary, day school and community hall.

It was the release of the water in the Addicks and Barker reservoirs that inundated Emmanuel Episcopal for about a month.

"When we came back and looked, the intersection, all the streets around were underwater," Chris Delange, the church's senior warden – or elected church officer – said. "It was very difficult to get in here."

The walls of the old church have been stripped to beams and studs.

Church members went in to save at least some of the inventory, but many things – including pews and the altar – weren't salvageable.

After the water receded and church leadership assessed the damage, they thought about what to do next. Should they rebuild or try to find a new home for their then about 800 members?

They determined that rebuilding would cost anywhere from $2.5 million to $6 million.

"We were looking at quite a costly rebuilding – from a financial standpoint quite a costly figure," Delange said. "And what weighed heavily on all of us is the fact that it could potentially flood again."

Then another tragedy struck. Their priest, Father Andy Parker, was diagnosed with cancer and passed away shortly after.

"And so that delayed our process as well, because not only were we having to try and determine where our new church was going to be or if we were rebuilding our old church but then we had to also reach out and look for a new priest,” he said.

Ultimately, they decided to look for a new location. But in the meantime, they had no home.

That's when a nearby congregation offered its help.

"I just got on their website and I sent an email to Rev. Andy Parker – may his memory be a blessing – and said, I know you all flooded," said Annie Belford, the rabbi at Temple Sinai, a Reform Jewish synagogue. "We're down the street. We haven't met. If you need a place to pray, let me know."

Fortunately, Harvey didn't flood Temple Sinai. So for the next two-and-a-half years, the two different faith groups shared a space.

It helped that they don't worship on the same day. Temple Sinai would hold service on their Sabbath – Saturday. The Episcopalians would worship on Sunday.

Still, there were difficulties and sacrifices.

"At the beginning, it was very unfamiliar," Emmanuel Episcopal member Gloria Alvarez said. "And we had to grow and learn to be with each other."

"We had to cut programming, we had to squish into spaces that maybe we didn't always want to be in," Rabbi Annie said. "But in the end, we got to say to our kids, when the going gets tough, when the pedal hits the metal, you have a choice to make. And this is what it means to make the choice to live your Jewish values instead of doing what's easy."

That's why, Rabbi Annie said, her congregation owes thanks to Emmanuel Episcopal instead of the other way around.

Then finally, last September the homeless congregation found a new building: Covenant Lutheran Church on Barker Cypress was up for sale and in April they closed on the property.

"It felt so amazing and it felt like home and it really called to us," Delange said.

The new Emmanuel Episcopal Church is at 3785 Barker Cypress Rd.

The large cross on the wall of the new sanctuary is still from the Covenant Lutheran congregation. The Emmanuel Episcopal cross rescued from the old church was lying on the floor.

Delange said they will superimpose it on top of their cross, "so it's the two congregations together."

The Covenant Lutherans still have some offices in the building and Delange said his church will let them stay as they're looking for a new place themselves.

"Obviously, COVID changed the timetable for everybody on everything," he said.

COVID has also kept his congregation from reaching the end of their long journey since Harvey. Services have been held online since March, when they were still at Temple Sinai.

"Where we worship in our church home isn't the building itself. It's the people that you're with and the mission that you're on,” he said.

But Delange said it will feel amazing when the congregation can finally worship in person and in their own home.

They hope to do that when the number of COVID-19 cases drops later this year.

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Florian Martin

Florian Martin

Business Reporter

Florian Martin is currently the News 88.7 business reporter. Florian’s stories can frequently be heard on other public radio stations throughout Texas and on NPR nationwide. Some of them have earned him awards from Texas AP Broadcasters, the Houston Press Club, National Association of Real Estate Editors, and Public Radio...

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