Several Texas churches are serving as warming shelters after a spike in the state’s power grid put millions in the dark and without heat.
Deacons Pete Nichols, Robert Wheat and David McGinnis haven’t left Skyline Baptist Church in Killeen since Feb. 14. In that time, they’ve been maintaining the church’s gym as a warming shelter alongside a handful of city employees.
“We have a place for them to stay and aren’t going to push them out the door in this weather,” said Nichols, a native of upstate New York who hasn’t seen temperatures this low since moving to Killeen 28 years ago.
At least 15 have died from the winter storm that sent temperatures plummeting for days and crippled travel with ice and snow. Those deaths have occurred from crashes, but also carbon monoxide poisoning from attempts to stay warm as well as a tornado that struck coastal North Carolina.
Approximately 35 people, including four families, are staying at the church. Last year Nichols, Wheat, Senior Pastor Ashley Payne and his wife Stephanie attended training sessions that certified Skyline as a shelter for emergencies.
“The city has a building for that use but had to close it down due to a sewage problem,” Nichols said. “So, they called the church. We have staff members staying overnight with the city employees as well as an armed police officer. Our security team is present too.”
The church provided breakfast and lunch earlier this week. The city’s soup kitchen will be at Skyline during the week too.
In Waco, Highland Baptist Church also opened as a warming shelter. During the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic the church had been an emergency food and supply provider.
“We have hosted around 60 people today and expect more tonight as the weather continues to worsen,” said Mary Claire Brock, the church’s communications director. “Members have been taking shifts around the clock since Monday evening and will do so until Thursday morning to host and pray for guests on campus.”
While snacks and water have been provided by the church so far, members have offered to bring hot meals for guests tonight, Brock said.
While Highland’s doors were open Sunday for in-person worship, it has since moved all campus activity online.
First Baptist Church, Farmersville, is hosting seven families on its campus. One of the biggest requests, pastor Bart Barber said, has been for hot showers.
“A lot of people are fighting a battle with freezing pipes,” he said. “When the sun comes up, they may take an hour to come to the church, get a hot shower, eat a hot bowl of soup and get a respite before going back home.”
Church members Larry and Kerrie Patterson needed a place after their electricity went out. When they asked Barber about staying at the church, he said sure, then congratulated them on being the shelter managers. “Every volunteer we have serving is either a staff member or volunteer/client,” he said.
Preparation for the cold temperatures began earlier for many congregations. In Oklahoma, Pastor Duncan Blackwell of Bethel Baptist Church in Anadarko told The Baptist Messenger that those steps are designed “to share the light of Jesus in our community in this challenging time.”
Bethel Baptist Church in Anadarko, Oklahoma, is providing snacks, blankets and other supplies for people sheltering on the church’s campus during bitterly cold temperatures.
“We knew this bitterly cold weather would be hard on the homeless in the community, as well as other people who are vulnerable in a situation like this,” he said.
Initial discussions over how to provide food, perhaps through a soup kitchen, quickly grew on social media to include others’ involvement from the community. Bethel’s campus would serve as the shelter, with area churches helping supply items such as blankets, coats, pillows, fitted sheets, air mattresses and food.
At least one salvation came about from the effort, Blackwell said.
“One person who was staying with us had no power. She showed up the first three nights of the kitchen and then stayed [at our church shelter] Saturday night. We planned to livestream our service and invited all there to attend. She and others came to the service. God moved in her heart, and she repented of her sin and professed faith in Jesus Christ.”
Dallas churches and other faith groups also are hard at work. Several groups have teamed up to help open an emergency warming center for the homeless at the city’s Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center.
Freezing temperatures and a rare major snowstorm caused power outages affecting millions of residents of the Lone Star State, leaving many without power or heat as temperatures plunged.
Some communities urged residents to boil water before drinking, and Texas officials are not sure when power outages will end, according to local news reports from Dallas. The Weather Channel reported 17 people had died due to the storm.
Wayne Walker of OurCalling, a Dallas-based homeless ministry, said his organization had been providing shelter at its building but became too crowded during the deep freeze. There was not enough space for people to stay warm while still keeping socially distanced.
One Dallas homeless shelter, where about 250 people were staying, temporarily lost power due to the storm, reported The Dallas Morning News. The city has also been relying on local hotels to provide winter shelter for the homeless during the pandemic.
The city of Dallas passed an ordinance last November that allows churches to open as emergency shelters during freezing temperatures. But the continuing pandemic has made that difficult, leading to the decision to open the convention center as a warming station last week.
Walker said his organization is helping staff the shelter, working 16-hour days and staying at a downtown hotel near the convention center. His family is also volunteering while some friends from church, who had lost power, stay at their house.
The first night the center was open, about 100 people showed up, said Walker. On Tuesday (Feb. 16), he expected more than 600 people. Everyone who comes to the shelter is given a COVID-19 rapid test. Those staying at the center are asked to social distance.
“The people keep coming,” he said. “I just talked to a mom who had six people in her house and they had no heat. She said it was warmer outside than in their house.”
He said the Salvation Army, Oak Lawn United Methodist Church and other faith groups have arranged for meals and other supplies. OurCalling is also collecting donations through its website.
“I don’t want people to go to Walmart and buy supplies and try to bring them to us,” he said, citing freezing conditions and treacherous roads. “That’s not very wise.”
Lending a hand
Walker said he is glad to be able to lend a hand.
“We’re able to show people grace and mercy from the hands of Christ,” he said.
The frigid temperatures have also caused hardship at a refugee camp just across the Texas border in Matamoros, Mexico, where hundreds of migrants are waiting to apply for asylum in the United States. Volunteers from Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley have brought blankets, jackets and sleeping bags to the camp, according to Border Report.
“We tell them the best way is to bundle up and be inside their tents that are freezing,” Sister Norma Pimentel told Border Report.
Alma Ruth, the founder of the Texas-based Practice Mercy Foundation, visited the camp this week and posted a video of the shelters that many refugees are living in at the camp. The shelters are tent-like structures, covered in plastic.
“This is unacceptable,” said Ruth, an evangelical missionary, in a video posted to her Facebook page. “I want you to first pray that the Lord will speed the process so they can apply for asylum in the United States.”
Reprinted from Baptist Press (www.baptistpress.com), the news service of the Southern Baptist Convention, with additional reporting from Religion News Service