PORT ARTHUR—During three decades at Procter Baptist Church in Port Arthur, Pastor Rick Erwin has experienced fire and flood—the former figurative and the latter literal.
For Erwin, age 72, a framed image on his office wall says it all: “Grateful, Thankful, Blessed.”
Deeply involved in missions
Erwin, who celebrated his 30th anniversary at Procter Baptist Church April 29, led the congregation to become deeply involved in missions. The church has sponsored a Spanish-language mission congregation in Alpine, ministered to evacuees from South Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina, provided meals both to homeless and homebound individuals, and met local needs through its We Care home-repair ministry.
Through the years, Erwin grew to realize the generous and supportive spirit of the congregation. Procter Baptist committed to make its facility available to other Christian groups, whether that meant serving as a hub for the Samaritan’s Purse Operation Christmas Child ministry, providing a base of operations for disaster relief volunteers or sharing its building with another congregation.
When First Baptist Church in Port Arthur sold its building and property, Procter Baptist invited its sister congregation to use its facility—at no cost—for worship and Bible study on Sunday and provide office space during the week until First Baptist could relocate to a permanent home. The two congregations shared one building for two and a half years.
Erwin learned even more about the spirit of his congregation in 2010, when he faced a fiery trial, battling prostate cancer. At the lowest point, when he developed sepsis and spent 40 days in a coma, the congregation rallied. The church provided support for his family, leadership in his absence and prayer for his recovery.
“They prayed me out of it,” Erwin said, his voice choking with emotion.
Last August, Procter Baptist Church faced its greatest challenge, when Hurricane Harvey devastated much of Southeast Texas and flooded the entire church facility with three feet of water.
“It’s been called a 500-year flood,” Erwin said. “The water came up so fast, people were running for their lives.”
When the city’s pumps failed and the water rose, Erwin and his wife, Lynn, feared for the safety of her mother, who was in a Port Arthur nursing home in a flooded area.
“She was in a precarious situation, and we knew she would be scared to death,” he said.
So, Erwin drove his four-wheel-drive pickup truck as close to the affected area as he could, and a volunteer with a boat offered to give him a ride to the nursing home to rescue his mother-in-law.
“On the way, I looked over and saw our church for the first time,” he recalled. “The sign outside was almost underwater, and I could see water inside the church through the windows. That’s when I realized it was total devastation.”
With assistance from volunteers and law enforcement personnel, Erwin moved his mother-in-law in her wheelchair out of the flooded nursing home and into a boat. She stayed at his home in Nederland for three weeks.
“A doctor from our church helped with her care until we could move her to a facility in Beaumont,” he said.
The Erwins faced their own challenges, when about a foot of water swept into their home, causing more than $45,000 damage.
“I consider that nothing compared to the people who lost everything,” Erwin said.
While he minimized the personal losses, he recognized the magnitude of the loss sustained by Procter Baptist, since the church lacked insurance to cover damage caused by rising water.
“I called the church to prayer,” he said. “Church members asked me, ‘What are we going to do?’ All I could say was: ‘God hasn’t told us yet. Keep praying.’”
The answer arrived when Erwin received an unexpected phone call from a Samaritan’s Purse representative.
“He said Franklin Graham (president of Samaritan’s Purse) remembered when Procter opened its facilities” to relief workers after Hurricane Ike and Hurricane Rita, Erwin said.
The official said he was prepared to send the church a $27,000 check immediately to help start rebuilding, and the organization had approved Procter Baptist for a $100,000 grant it could draw upon as renovations continued—with the understanding more money could be available if necessary.
“God gave us the boost we needed,” Erwin said.
Help from near and far
Volunteers from the church tore out damaged drywall, removed water-soaked furniture and disinfected the facility. In four weeks, the church was able to worship in its sanctuary—albeit on bare floors, surrounded by walls with exposed studs and using a portable sound system.
“We had as many attend worship that fourth Sunday as on the Sunday before the flood happened,” Erwin said. “I told the people that every Sunday going forward, they should look for at least one thing God had given us that week.”
The Baptist General Convention of Texas church architecture staff consulted with leaders of the congregation and redesigned the sanctuary to make the best use of available space.
Volunteer teams began to contact the church from as far away as the West Coast and East Coast, asking if they could travel to Port Arthur to help the church. Erwin not only coordinated the volunteer teams, but also worked alongside the visiting teams and his own church members.
“These days, it’s not uncommon to see the pastor covered in sawdust or with a paint roller in hand,” said Tonja Hurt, the pastor’s assistant and the church’s financial secretary. “He has managed to continue the daily workings of the church on top of organizing the repair efforts.”
Erwin succeeded in preaching each Sunday, making hospital visits, conducting funerals and overseeing the reconstruction effort while dealing with another health setback. Several months ago, he had surgery at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston to remove a particularly aggressive skin cancer beneath his left eye.
‘We never stopped doing ministry’
Today, Procter Baptist continues the rebuilding process. About half of the facility has been renovated, but the church continues its full range of programs.
“We never stopped doing ministry,” Erwin said. “There’s an excitement among the members. They can’t wait to see how far we’ve come each week.”
Obviously, the church lost a lot in the flood—pianos, pews, furniture and fixtures. Erwin particularly feels the loss of books that had belonged to his father, who also was a pastor, and files of sermons his father had written.
Even so, he chooses not to dwell on what was lost. Rather, he gives thanks for what the church gained.
“What we lost were just things,” he said. “We found out you’ve got to get beyond things.”
He particularly finds joy in visiting other pastors of churches that are in the midst of hard times to deliver one simple message: “There is hope.”