Pastor Ted Duck’s church is in bad shape.
Pine Drive Community Church, a Baptist church and school on FM 517 in Dickinson, was badly damaged by Hurricane Harvey’s floodwaters. The school building is almost a total loss, with walls ripped down to their frames. The pews are all gone from the sanctuary, where rows of fans and dehumidifiers work to dry the place out.
Repairs are mostly being done by church member volunteers.
“Over the Labor Day weekend, we had 75 people here,” Duck said. “It was pretty close to 100 degrees that weekend. We had church members, we had kids, we had parents. One kid that was 10 years old was pushing load after load of this stuff to the back.”
Duck said that the church — which was not covered by flood insurance — has also received an outpouring of support from other churches around the country, having received multiple gifts, amounting to tens of thousands of dollars to go toward repairs.
“I’ve also been reminded that when somebody wants to give you something, they want to give you something out of their heart; it is a blessing,” Duck said. “What we need right now, we need money and we need manpower.”
Churches in Dickinson, like Duck’s, don’t qualify for the same type of federal disaster relief that businesses and other nonprofits do, a federal policy that has led some of the state’s top elected officials to call for changes in federal law.
Last week, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and Attorney General Ken Paxton sent a letter to Washington, D.C., asking that churches and other houses of worship be allowed the same access to federal aid that other nonprofits are.
“Churches have opened their doors to feed, shelter, comfort and rebuild their communities — even hosting FEMA operations in the process — but this policy has made those very same churches ineligible for assistance because their primary use is, by nature, religious,” Abbott and Paxton wrote.
The letter came days after four Republicans — including Texas Sen. John Cornyn and U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz — introduced a bill in Congress that would allow churches to access FEMA funds.
Under current U.S. law, FEMA cannot give money to churches for repairs, reconstruction or replacement of facilities damaged by a storm.
A similar attempt to amend the Stafford Act was made after Superstorm Sandy in 2013. It passed the House of Representatives by a relatively wide margin. It was never voted on by the Senate.
It’s unclear whether the new bid to make FEMA funding available to churches will make any more headway.
Churches do qualify for some forms of aid, including recovery loans from the Small Business Administration. What they can’t receive are grants, which don’t come with an expectation that the money will be paid back.
Opponents of providing recovery grants to churches argue that allowing them would violate Constitutional rules about the separation of church and state.
Some leaders of local churches say they are mostly staying out of the debate.
“I’m not an expert in what their rules are,” said the Rev. Jack Matkin, the pastor of Dickinson’s First United Methodist Church. “My understanding is that it’s more focused on not being able to provide funding to rebuild a worship area, that way it maintains its separation of church of state.”
Matkin’s church got a foot of water throughout its facilities and 4 feet of water inside the main sanctuary. The church’s kitchen facilities also were badly damaged, he said.
He didn’t expect the church to be fully repaired for another eight to 12 months, he said.
“We were insured for the maximum we could get without getting a supplemental on top,” Matkin said. “That didn’t cover everything we need to do, so we’re looking at our options right now.”
Beyond the cost of rebuilding, there will be other challenges, too. At least 80 of the church’s families were directly affected by the storm, and some of the congregation’s members have had to move away because their homes were too badly damaged.
“I think we’ll be OK,” Matkin said. “We say goodbye to them, just like others that move away, and we tell them to keep living the same way.”