Marlon F. Hall: In Houston, a people who love their neighbors

Volunteers evacuate people in a boat from a flooded neighborhood in Houston.

Volunteers help evacuate people from a flooded neighborhood near Buffalo Bayou in Houston.
Michael Stravato/Polaris/Newscom

The most culturally diverse city in the nation has responded to the floodwaters of Hurricane Harvey by serving and sacrificing for others, writes a Houston church leader.

I am a choreography of pride and pain as I type these words: moved to celebrate the birthday of the city I love and mourning the deaths of good people who have lost lives and ways of life to a bad storm.

Houston was founded on the banks of Buffalo Bayou 181 years ago, on August 30, 1836, by two brothers, Augustus Chapman Allen and John Kirby Allen. The birth waters of our city are now flooded with the debris of present-day citizens’ past lives.

I am proud to say the furniture, diapers and dirty clothes aren’t the only things you can find in the milk chocolate-brown waters of our city’s inception. Despite the national portraits of demise and destitution, Houston is an example of how to “wade” a city whole in troubled waters of waste and loss. When you look closely, you can see the powerful leadership of a people who are so at home with themselves they can make Houston a home for others.

“Blessed are they who are at home with themselves, for everywhere they go, they are at home.”

-- Matthew 5:5 MRV (Marlon’s Revised Version)

The King James Version says, “Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth.”

I have learned that meekness isn’t a weakness; it’s a personal quality that grounds a person. The meek possess humility through their sense of self-awareness and value. They source meekness from a holy boldness that cannot be contained by geographical boundaries. This quality equips them to make the world a home for themselves and others.

We optimistically share who we are.

This explains why when Katrina hit, we had no problem hosting 200,000 evacuees. We are not afraid that others will take our home from us, because we are a people from many places who are at home with who we are.

In 1832, Augustus left the comforts of a job as a bookkeeper for the H. and H. Canfield Company, New York, and set out with his brother for the land-rich promise of Texas. Four years later, they purchased some 6,000 acres along Buffalo Bayou for $5,000 to establish a new city.

Houston began with and belongs to a bunch of bold nomads from all over the world who dared to venture out of their indigenous communities in search of a better life. In what has become the most culturally diverse city in the nation, here millions of people, speaking a hundred languages, from hundreds of countries, have found a home. There is a level of “at-homeness” one must have to leave the comfort of a known country in search of something new.

When asked why Houstonians take risks to help others, Judy Nyquist, arts patron and Houston Arts Alliance board member, said, “It’s probably naivete, but who cares. It is embedded in the culture. Optimism is innate, celebrated and expected.” Judy not only buys artwork; she invests in the lives of artists. “I didn’t know Monet or Rembrandt, but there are people in this city that I know who need support as people and not just producers,” she said.

No city in American history has experienced rain and floodwater damage like Houston in the wake of Harvey. But our people have risen to the challenge. There are just as many private boats rescuing people in the city as there are Coast Guard vessels. And we are welcoming our neighbors into our homes with the creative help of the popular website Airbnb.

Inspired by the generosity of community members serving their neighbors after Hurricane Sandy in 2012, Airbnb designed a disaster response program that harvests a database of homeowners willing to host others for a period without payment.

Our church -- Awakenings Movement -- is collaborating in this innovative effort. In partnership with New Living, a sustainable home goods store, we are working to identify and recruit both hosts and guests, helping Houstonians continue their legacy of loving their neighbors.

“Hurricanes have a way of shaking things up,” said New Living co-founder Jeff Kaplan. “They bring us back to who we really are, a city where people come from different places to make this place home.”

Melissa Eason, a New Living artisan, added, “It is the miracle of devastation that helps us as people to not be afraid of people.”

Houston started with a typical Southern-town slavery culture. It began using its bayous and dug a deep-water ship channel, quickly becoming a commercial center. In the early 1900s, oil was discovered nearby, and by 1930, the city boasted more than 40 oil refineries.

Like the abundance of natural resources far beneath the ground that has fueled Houston’s economy, what energizes our city’s culture is rooted deeply.

I lead a ministry that traveled nomadically from one public venue to the next every three months for four years. From Clyde Drexler’s Bar-B-Que to the Texas Southern University Rhinehart Auditorium to The Breakfast Klub, our worship setting was an object lesson for the truth that church is a people, not a place. We are the church home we seek, and we seek it together. National critics marvel at how our nomadic church worked despite lacking a tangible “church home.” Each time we moved, we grew.

It has taken Harvey for me to realize that our congregation’s design may not have worked in other contexts, because our city believes that when it comes to people, there are more risks to be taken than to be avoided.

Jesus felt the same way. He put his body where his call was and made a home of eternity for us by sacrificing his life. Our city is a model for the future of the church that is having to look for life in the murky waters of what some experts call death. When processing the decline of mainline church attendance, the church too can wade itself whole in troubled waters of waste and loss through service and risky self-sacrifice for others.

Blessed is the church made of people who are at home with themselves, for everywhere they go, they make a home for others.