Last month the final hurricane shelter closed in East Texas. For almost two months, relief resources were put to the test across the area. For the most part, it was the church that responded to the need of thousands. KLTV 7's Clint Yeatts went back to one of the first churches to open its doors to hurricane evacuees to find out how the church passed the test.
For years, the Tyler First Christian Church has been a first responder for people seeking shelter in times of crisis, but they had never experienced anything like what happened August 28th.
As the first shelter to open in Tyler, a few people arrived that day ahead of a storm called Katrina. In just a few days, a church that averages around 400 on Sundays had twice that many in its parking lot.
"God puts in us the gifts, the skills, the potential and then we have the choice to use that, to access that and most important, use that for his benefit and his glory. And I saw people doing that all over the place. Not only in our congregation but from within the community," said Dr. Jeffrey Wilson, a senior minister at the church.
The days were long and hard. Confusion, frustration, despair came here. But in the midst of it all, the people who spent so many hours here remember how God worked in their lives and the lives of the people whose lives had been turned upside down.
"I personally felt like that I really been touched. And that God put me here because I felt I could contribute, but I was the one that really benefited," said Pam Sartain, one of the volunteers. "Yes, it was a lot of work, a lot of long, long, long hours. I would drag in at 10:00 or 10:30 at night and be exhausted but I couldn't wait to get back up here, to be around the people, to see what I could do to help them."
"Over and over they would say, 'Well yeah, but my family is okay.' Or, 'I finally located my kids,' you know, things like that. So they sort of kept us going instead of the other way around," said volunteer Jackie Littleton.
"Were they ready? Evidently they were," said Wilson. "A tremendous amount of ministry took place. A tremendous amount of compassion was offered. So, whether they realized they were ready... I mean that's my understanding of how God works. He grows us and he grows us then give us the opportunity. In a sense it is a test. In a sense it is an opportunity to utilize that."
Over five weeks, hundreds of people would find shelter here. Even more would arrive for meals, assistance and counseling. It was a scene played over and over again in churches and places of faith across East Texas. The church standing in the gap, providing in a time of crisis. A test of resolve that many feel was passed with flying colors.
"I think the church should always be the first line of help. And we've sort of gotten away from that in this country. Until we have something major like this to come and remind us that's our job," said Littleton.
"So when you look at what was done by faith-based groups, all the volunteers, all the millions of meals, all the shelter that was given, it was heroic and historic. I think when the story is written about Katrina, Chapter One will be about what the faith-based groups did," said Jim Towey.
"It's absolutely what the church is supposed to do. The church is supposed to be the expression of God," said Wilson.
"Am I glad for the opportunity. I wouldn't trade it for anything. Let me put it this way, we haven't taken ourselves off the list and we haven't said go somewhere else first next time," said Wilson.
Recovery costs at First Christian Church will top around $100,000. Dr. Wilson says his church and the community has already come forward to cover some of the costs. He expects God will provide the rest.