It was the water, not the wind, that most affected southeast Texans in the path of Hurricane Harvey. Recovering from the flood won’t be easy. It will take weeks of cleaning, rebuilding, and, in one Beaumont neighborhood, faith.
At the corner of Pine and Lethia streets in north Beaumont, neat rows of pews are drying out on the front lawn of Magnolia Missionary Baptist Church. Near the pews is a bookcase, a small round table, some chairs and a piano. A little girl named Cassie bangs on the keys, her grandparents egging her on.
If you looked only at this part of the church, you might mistake it for a garage sale. But that would mean ignoring the enormous pile of debris 10 feet away – a damp stack of doors, plywood, insulation and anything else soaked by Hurricane Harvey.
Churches turned inside out like this are a common sight on Pine Street. It runs about four miles through Beaumont’s North End, from downtown to the Neches River. Magnolia Missionary Baptist is just one of the 10 or so churches that sit on or around Pine. Most of them, and the small one-story homes that fill the neighborhood, had never flooded seriously. Harvey changed that.
“This is the sanctuary, we had six, six and a half feet of water,” says Reverend Dwight Benoit, who has been the pastor at Magnolia Missionary Baptist for over two decades. “So all of the pews, all of the instruments and supplies here in our church were damaged. Everything, total damage.”
The church’s classrooms and offices have been gutted, and it would be easier to believe they were still under construction, rather than having ever been used.
Down the street at First Full Gospel Baptist Church, the damage isn’t quite as dramatic, but it’s still in bad shape.
“We got about 10 to 12 inches of water inside the building. And it just kinda, as the water receded it just kinda left us where we have to go in and just kinda refurbish everything,” says Pastor Vernon Tubbs, who started the congregation 22 years ago. He’s been here ever since.
“This is a traditionally older neighborhood in the city, predominantly an African-American neighborhood with a lot of hard-working people who have worked for years and years and have a lot of pride in what they do, what they’ve accomplished. A lot have property here, they really don’t want to give it up because this is home,” Tubbs says.
Damaged as their congregations are, the pastors on Pine Street say they’re not going anywhere. And some never stopped serving the community around them. In one room at Magnolia Missionary Baptist, food and cleaning supplies are stacked nearly floor-to-ceiling. And most of it is on its way out.
“I took that U-Haul and go down the streets,”Tubbs says. “We took people water, food, clothing if they couldn’t come. ‘Cos Jesus said you don’t set up where they come to you. Jesus said as you go, preach the gospel. Go ye into all the world.”
Service and labor helps restore a sense of normalcy for some.
Carolyn Joubert cleans the sanctuary at New Temple Christ Holy Sanctified Church of America a few times a week. It’s a form of worship for her, although her work usually doesn’t require a cloth dust mask. But it will for the foreseeable future.
“Can you hear me with this… ‘Yes ma’am.’ Uh, right now we don’t have a lot of light, (cough) See what I’m saying?” Joubert says.
As we walk into the church’s muddy, white-tiled foyer, a moldy, fetid smell smacks us in the face. There’s a folded American flag hanging on a front wall, and some moisture has seeped into its wood and glass case. The carpet has been ripped up in the sanctuary itself, which still isn’t completely dry.
“See there’s still sitting water,” Joubert says. “We’re trying to finish moving out the broken up pews that…some of them fell apart due to the water.”
But as dark and dirty as the inside of the sanctuary is, it’s sunny and clear outside. It’s cool for early September, even cooler as the sun starts to set. On my way out of the neighborhood, back toward downtown,
I stop at a public housing community called Grand Pine Court. The apartments are arranged in rows of squat brick buildings. Charleston Brown is sitting outside with two Styrofoam containers of barbecue on the chair next to him. He said I could move the containers, and sit next to him. Brown has lived in this neighborhood his whole life. And he was lucky – he evacuated with family to Lafayette, Louisiana, but his apartment was OK.
“I didn’t take it for granted, man,” Brown says. “People lost a whole lot of stuff. And I’m thankful to God that when I came back and seen it like this, it was alright with me. But it’s about other people man. I done seen men, no certain color, that helped out other people, man. That had wives and went out there and saved people out of water, boy. Beaumont got good people, man. That’s what I can tell you. Beaumont got good people.”
We talk for about 15 minutes, and when I get up to leave, I put the containers back onto the chair and tell him to enjoy his dinner. But he says no, “that’s not for me.”
“And that’s to give to somebody that needs it. I’m good. ‘Oh, you got that for somebody else?’ Somebody pass through, need something. Hey man that’s what it’s all about. When God done bless you, bless somebody else, you know,” Brown says.
He didn’t have anyone in particular in mind. Just anyone around who happened to be hungry.