‘Help Us Help Houston’

“I can’t do much, but here’s what I can do.”

In late August 2017, when many families were buying last-minute school supplies, Hurricane Harvey hit Houston. It stayed in place for four days and spun a year’s worth of rain. Many of us saw the devastation from a distance through our television screens. We prayed for those people in dire circumstances but felt helpless to do anything about it.

In the midst of that helplessness on a Sunday morning, I said in passing, “I think it would be wonderful if this church could be known as a drop-off place for relief supplies.” We had no plan, only wishes and prayers.

The next day, a man from the congregation called the church office. “Pastor, as a truck driver, I can’t get involved with the church as much as I would like. My wife and I have been praying about this, and I’d be willing to donate my time to drive a truck to Houston. My boss said he’d be willing to donate the semi and the fuel. So if you can figure out what to put on the truck, I’ll haul it down there. I can’t do much, but I can drive a truck; that’s what I know how to do.”

Our staff contacted pastor Andy Sytsma of New Life Christian Reformed Church just north of Houston. We asked a simple question: “Suppose you could have a 53-foot trailer with whatever relief supplies you needed. What would you put on that truck?” (Long pause.) “Andy, are you there?” “Yeah, I am trying to wrap my head around what you just said!”

Andy and area pastors began doing needs assessments within their churches and communities. Weeks later, they presented us with a list of names and needs. The need was bottomless.

The list included supplies like hundreds of mattresses, appliances, tools, insulation for 50 houses, construction materials, drywall compound, and clothes. That list gave us our first real sense of the great need.

At this point, our staff made two decisions. First, we would ask donors for new items. Families had already had their lives turned upside down; dignity meant no hand-me-downs. Second, our effort needed to be about more than relief; it also needed to be about relationships. We would ask our congregation to call on their own community and work relationships. The message to others around us—churched and unchurched—would be “Help us help Houston.” It would convey both “We need your help” and “Join us.”

We believed the Spirit was at work in ways we could not control. We posted the needs on our website and set up a special email for donations. We established an Amazon gift registry for items that could be shipped directly to Houston. Then we told the church and the community that we would take 12 days to try to fill a trailer.

What happened was beyond what we imagined. Church people contacted neighbors, work associates, and friends. People went to area businesses and told the story of a truck driver who said, “I can’t do much, but here’s what I can do.” They told the story of a semi owner inspired by that generosity who said, “I can’t do much, but I can donate a semi.” In turn, people said, “I can’t fill a semi, but I can buy a dishwasher.” A 9-year-old boy from the community dropped by one day and handed us $157 in cash. He’d heard about the project and went through his neighborhood collecting cans for deposit. His mantra was the same: “I can’t do much, but here’s what I can do.” Some families said, “Let’s make this our family Christmas.” They pooled what they were going to spend on gifts for each other and gifted Houston instead.

Local furniture, mattress, and appliance stores caught the vision as well. Not only did they sell thousands of dollars’ worth of merchandise at cost, but many made significant donations. While we did not ask for money, more than $26,000 was given. A third of this came from outside our congregation. A local TV station spread the word through a news story.   

On the 12th day we loaded the trailer. When it was packed tight, our loading dock still had 28 feet of appliances, furniture, and mattresses for Houston. The next day we announced to the congregation that the trailer was filled. There was an audible gasp because we knew we had not done this on our own. We told the story of how God had multiplied the spirit of “I can’t do much, but here’s what I can do.” During the offering, a member waved me over. He said, “Pastor, God was talking to me while you were telling that story. I will donate a truck and driver as well; just make sure it gets filled.”

Two people from our church flew down to Houston to help unpack the first trailer. They saw with their own eyes the impact of the flooding on houses and the disruption in people’s lives. A few weeks later, the second truck was delivered. More than $100,000 in merchandise was on those two trucks. At Thanksgiving, our congregation received video messages of thanks from people in Houston. Their stories moved us deeply and reminded us that we are all connected in ways we often forget.

What have we learned along the way?

  • To follow the prompts of the Spirit in new ways. We could never have orchestrated something this big on our own. Instead, we joined in what God was already doing in people’s hearts.
  • We approached the project with vulnerability rather than having a strong plan. We couldn’t anticipate all the ways God was working around us, nor could we manage the Spirit’s work. Every time we were tempted to do so, our best plans went flat. This too was a place of learning for us: Engagement with curiosity is so much better than control. At most we were a conduit for what God wanted to do through us.
  • Instead of communicating to our neighbors “We have something you need,” we invited them to join us and help others. This got amazing traction in our relationships with the wider community. Peoplewanted to help the church be the church, even without joining us as members. Over and over we heard, “This is exactly what the church should be doing.” Who knows what God will do through this experience with a local group of Christians!

When a little boy showed up at the door of our church with money from collecting soda cans in the neighborhood, I was reminded of another little boy in John’s gospel who showed up with five loaves and two fish.

In this project, we witnessed a multiplication miracle with our own eyes. Like the gospel story, this involved followers of Jesus being presented with a crisis. Disciples tend to say things like “But we have so little, and the need is so great!” or “That trailer is huge and there is so little time!” But the invitation is to let God do the work and for us to say, “I can’t do much, but here’s what I can do.”

About the Author

Rev. Marc Nelesen is pastor of Georgetown Christian Reformed Church in Hudsonville, Mich.

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