As a missionary kid growing up in Guatemala, I survived the destructive effects of a massive earthquake and a major military coup. As an adult now living in Houston, I have survived the destructive effects of a hurricane. But I don’t think I’ve coped with it very well.
Hurricane Harvey had already been at work for three noahic days when my wife, Phaedra, asked me to check on the condition of the streets so that we could make an informed decision: pack our bags or hunker down. We have a five-year-old daughter and a four-month-old son; we couldn’t afford to make a poor decision.
I raced down my street on a mountain bike in the town of Pecan Grove, just southwest of Houston, as sheets of rain lashed at my marine-blue jacket. At times, the water rose to my knees and soaked my shorts. My back brake pad suddenly fell off, leaving me with only my front brake to navigate the sloshing waters.
As I turned the corner onto Plantation Drive—the street that would usually take us out of the neighborhood—what I saw startled me: a small black sedan, like a child’s toy in the bathtub, bobbing up and down on the swollen waters that blocked our way out to safety. Approaching me were three men pulling at a canoe with ropes. In it sat two women, one of them holding a dog cage, gaping at the muddy brown waters that steadily rose around them.
By that time, nearly a trillion gallons of water had fallen over Houston and more were coming.
After staring at the canoe, I turned my bike around and bolted for home. I am 45, but I felt like 17—shot through with adrenaline. I knew there was one exit on the opposite side of our neighborhood that remained untouched by the floods, and I was determined to make it through with my wife and kids.
Earlier that morning, Phaedra and I had been fighting, both of us feeling the pressure of the moment. We clashed, however, in how to process the stress. After growing up in Guatemala and facing multiple disasters, I tend to feel less fear and more cold sobriety. I become intensely focused. She, however, expresses things openly. In fighting with her about whether to stay or go, I felt helpless in the face of her panic attack and angry tears, but my lack of visible empathy only made our conflict worse. I felt anger rising inside of me.
I also felt angry about the suffering in our city. What about the others who would be left behind without a means of escape? I thought. How could we make sense of their circumstances—and our inability to help them?
In my theology class at Fuller Theological Seminary, I teach my students about the doctrine of Providence. It describes God’s work of preservation, conservation, and perfection of the world that he so loves. The Father, in the Son, by the Spirit protects creation against a reversion to the chaos of Genesis 1:1, enables creation to flourish, and ensures creation’s good, pleasing, and perfect purpose.
It’s easy for me to say this in class while standing at the lectern with a coffee in hand, while the air conditioning keeps the room at an even temperature. It’s another for me to believe it while arguing with my wife, Phaedra—with the wind rattling our windows and the waters covering over our backyard—or while reading the news online.
A 34-year Houston police officer drowned in his patrol car. A beloved coach at a high school in southeast Houston was taken by the floodwaters. A three-year-old girl was found clinging to the lifeless body of her mother. Four children and their great-grandparents were swept away into the Greens Bayou. Their bodies are as-yet unrecovered.
By the time this hurricane will have left the Gulf of Mexico, more than 300,000 people in Texas will be left without electricity and between $40–50 billion of property damage will be sustained. An estimated 30,000 will be displaced from their homes. With peak accumulations of 51 inches of rain, Harvey will become officially the worst disaster in Texas history.
Where exactly is this God whom I tell my students is sovereign? Where is evidence of the Great Rescuer that I read about to my daughter in The Jesus Storybook Bible?
In my theology class, I tell my students that a Spirit-empowered Jesus goes to this village, not that one, heals this woman, not that one, allows himself to be interrupted by people along the way, even as he sets his face like flint toward the cross. But what about all the villages that Christ never visited? What about all the women who never got close enough to the Lord to be healed? What about all the storms that Jesus did not rebuke with a word?
Here in Houston, what about those without the means to escape their neighborhood? What about the underprivileged who lack insurance to recover their irreplaceables? What about the elderly who can’t evacuate their homes? Is it right that we should escape to save ourselves? How is that just or generous? Wouldn’t it be more loving to stay and to serve the poor and the needy? And how does any of this square with the sovereignty of God?
Back home, Phaedra and I took a quick account of what might be lost if the waters were to seep into our home. By then, a mandatory evacuation notice had been issued for our neighborhood. We gave ourselves two hours to prepare the house. I carried up to the second floor the irreplaceable things—heirlooms, artwork, photo albums. Furniture went up on bricks. I stored away boxes of memorabilia that include hand-written letters from my childhood and a vacuum-sealed bag full of newspapers from the day after 9/11.
Ten minutes after we exited our neighborhood, the floodwaters closed over our last way out. We were told that anybody who hadn’t escaped at that point would be landlocked until this Friday at the earliest, two weeks at the latest. There is the possibility that folks in our neighborhood will get up to four feet of water in their homes.
Right before we left, our friend Shereen, a single mother, asked if she and her two sons could take refuge in our home while we are gone. They walked into our house, along with their two dogs, just as we were escaping it. As we talked with Shereen, who runs a ministry to displaced single moms, I thought of the last thing I told my theology students in our session on Providence:
All the sorrow and suffering of this world is a mystery. There’s no wrapping our heads around it; there just isn’t. It’s a mystery whose meaning will only be disclosed at the end of the age. In the middle of it, all we can do is to trust the One who has suffered with us and for us, the kind of God who weeps with us and who gives his life to serve the destitute, the down-on-their-luck, the homeless, the penniless.
As we left our house, Phaedra turned to Shereen and said: “Jesus be with you.” It was the only thing that made sense to say under the circumstances.
Driving west on I-10 to stay with family in Austin, we passed convoys of National Guard soldiers, a fleet of first responders and state troopers with their sirens flashing, and a caravan of regular folks in their pickup trucks pulling flat bottom boats behind them, all driving towards the storm. It gave me the chills to see it. Phaedra wept.
As we journeyed, Twitter lit up with prayers for my hometown. Facebook gave evidence of the body of Christ opening their doors for shelter and donating money to help with rescue and rebuilding. My inbox filled with notes from friends. My wife sat next to me, writing notes of encouragement to friends who stayed behind. She also began to conceive of a plan to fill up a truck with supplies to take back to folks in our neighborhood.
As I think back to that moment, with a mass of primeval waters rushing by us on either side of I-10, I still can’t make moral sense of Hurricane Harvey. Not today; not in the middle of it. But I do find myself profoundly grateful for the people of God and the countless good citizens who choose to be with us and with my hometown in the middle of the storm.
If Jesus weeps over the death of a friend, gone too soon from this earth, then Phaedra is right to weep too for all that has gone wrong in Houston. If Jesus offers his Spirit so that his disciples might be a renewed people, then the only reasonable thing for us to do as God’s people is to somehow, someway become Christ’s wounded healers to a hurting world.
For now, that’s the only way I can figure out how to cope with Hurricane Harvey.
W. David O. Taylor is assistant professor of theology and culture at Fuller Theological Seminary and based at the Fuller Texas campus in Houston. His most recent book is The Theater of God’s Glory: Calvin, Creation, and the Arts (Eerdmans, 2017)