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Community Becomes an Action Verb: The Crisis within the Crisis

A Storm Unlike Any

On February 14, 2021, Winter Storm Uri brought historic and dangerous winter weather to the state of Texas. Temperatures dropped to record levels, and a severe storm of snow and ice blanketed most of the state, dropping historic amounts of snow in areas where snowfall is highly uncommon. For the first time on record, the National Weather Service issued Winter Storm Warnings for all 254 counties in the state.

As the storm moved in during the early hours of February 15th, many in the state lost power. More than 4.5 million customers in Texas were without power during the peak of outages in the state. With an infrastructure that relies on electricity almost exclusively to provide heat to homes, many residents in Texas had to endure days of excruciating cold.

In Austin, the power remained on for the Southwest campus and adjacent student housing. However, many faculty, staff, and students living off campus had to endure single degree temperature without heat for days.

As the week continued and temperatures rose, the power and heat crisis quickly transformed into a water crisis, as the power loss had shut down treatment plants in Austin, and most residents outside the center of the city lost running water in their homes for as long as a week. Those with water were under a boil water notice. Across the city, this loss of water caused most restaurants to close, and grocery stores were soon overwhelmed- a scene reminiscent of those across the country when the pandemic began.

A Focus on Community

Through the Winter Storm and its aftermath, Southwest students, faculty, and staff became focused on helping their community. Even before the storm arrived, an email chain was sent out by student Katie Gould asking for blankets and sleeping bags to donate to the homeless community before it got dark on Friday, February 12.

Within hours, Gould snapped aphoto of what she found on her front porch:

“A wonderful outpouring of love is seen here in this pile of blankets and coats and such that has accumulated so quickly with such short notice on our porch.”

Katie Gould

On Monday, February 15, Gould sent another email with “an opportunity to feed 30 homeless people that have been put up in a local hotel through Saturday,” and the Seminary community responded again.

Thanks to contributions made, whether monetary, material goods, or time, over 400 meals were provided for those in need. A group that was housed by Austin Mutual Aid was fed hot meals provided by the seminary community, and with what was left over, a nearby camp was also blessed with food. “Many friends, from within SSW community and from outside of this community donated food, money, and time to help make this happen,” said Gould.

“Matthew was homeless during the riots last year and now he is clean and helping pastor George go into homeless camps and find people who need and want help!” said Gould in an email showing the Southwest community’s generosity at work. “What they cherish most is to be served, rather than just handed a box lunch. When you serve them a hot meal that was made and delivered with a care for the person in mind, it translates to them that they are seen and acknowledged as valuable and loved.”

“Rest, a soft and warm place to land, a shower to freshen up, full bellies, kind people, and fresh laundry all deliver the most generous gift of all: HOPE,” Gould said. “This is what we were able to contribute towards as a community. For now, the work and love continues on!”

Prior to the winter storm, MDiv Senior Toni Belhu had organized a non-perishable item fundraiser surrounding a Valentine’s Day 5K.  People had already donated goods and money, so Belhu’s efforts were timely. “Every couple of months, I collect items from the SSW student and SPOTS community to share with our neighbors who do not have houses,” said Belhu. 

“One particular location is under an underpass.  When the weather was calling for snow, I was able to buy socks and snacks and provide these to some of our neighbors on the Friday before the storm. When the Goulds mentioned to the community that they were partnering with an organization to help, I contacted Katie and volunteered to assist them in their ministry.  Chris Gould and I spent two hours one morning/early afternoon in the line at HEB waiting to buy groceries so Katie and others could cook homemade meals twice a day.  While at the store, I texted Amy and Erik Evenson a photo of our grocery cart – we only had backpacks to carry the items home.  Amy proceeded to walk and meet us at HEB with an additional backpack and bags.  A kind young man saw us and joined us and helped bring the items to the Goulds’ house,” shared Belhu. “When the weather was a little clearer and we could drive safely, Amy, Christine Brunson and I brought coffee, tea, and hot chocolate to those we had served earlier in the week under the overpass.”

“Since then, Collin Larimore and Hume Jamison have joined me in a weekly ministry of delivering and serving hot coffee, Gatorade, water, bananas, granola bars and fruit snacks to two areas where our neighbors are of need.  We are blessed to get to know them and to help in this small way. This is our way of expressing what we have learned at Seminary of the Southwest and the model of Being, Knowing and Doing and to live into our calling to ministry in the Church,” shared Belhu.

Caring for Our Beloved Home

On the Southwest campus, the deep freeze had taken its toll. Pipes burst in academic buildings and in College Court, the primary on-campus residence. Individual heating units had failed, and the iconic tree canopy of Southwest hung heavy with ice and snow. With roads impassible in Austin, and almost all seminary staff unable to reach campus, the students sprang into action. Long time Director of Facilities Maintenance, Tigh Waters, guided resident students over the phone on how to shut off water and make temporary emergency repairs to broken water pipes.

“When Collin called about the pipe at College Court and I realized that it was inside the cinder block wall, I was (in a word) frustrated. Then I thought, who can help? From there on out the Snovid Dream Team of Collin, Bradley Heuett, Andrew Gordon, and Hume Jamison carried me through. Facetime was a huge help in identifying water shut-off locations, parts and tools in the shop, and generally a way for me to ‘be there’ as they helped,” recalled Waters. “They saved our campus- I have no question.”

“Then, the sun came out, and within 24 hrs. all the snow and ice was gone, and the beautiful Austin spring weather left us all wondering if it had all been one long, bad dream,” said Gordon, an MDiv Middler. “The countless agave and prickly pear cacti that died from freeze damage became physical reminders of the visceral scars that we carry, not just from the storm, but from the trauma of the last year of pandemic.”

Formation amid the Catastrophe

“In the eye of the storm is where we as Christians have to be willing to work. We, too, are being beaten down by the storm; however, in those times, we have to come together to help God’s children in any way that we can. During these “unprecedented” times, we only have each other to lean on and depend on. In these times, we have to be willing to offer the gifts God has granted us to lift the fallen, soothe the suffering, feed the hungry, or in my case, the ability to band-aid a broken pipe. Though our pasts seem irrelevant to the present, God can remind us that we are always preparing for ministry today. Thank you, Seminary of the Southwest, for all you are doing to serve God’s children,” said The Rev. Heuett.

“Amidst the icy chaos, we leaned into one another.  Students fixed broken water pipes, cooked for each other, brought firewood to houses, supported and cooked for our homeless siblings, rescued an off-campus family, and consistently checked in on each other.   Within the wreckage of the storm, we were also reminded: sometimes community is an action verb,” said Gordon. 

The Very Rev. Cynthia Briggs Kittredge reflected, “During a time of sudden deprivation, danger, and fear, each member of the community did what they could do to care for themselves and to help their neighbors. Those with power and heat offered to shelter others. Students cooked in their tiny kitchens and brought food to the unhoused in Austin. People who were struggling to keep themselves and their families warm depended on others to help them make it through. It is an experience of disaster that we are still processing.”

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