Less than a month into the new year, 2020 is shaping up to be a time of either apprehension or anticipation for the more than 13 million worldwide members of the United Methodist Church, depending on where they stand on a proposal that would split the church over the issue of rights of LGBTQ members and clergy.
Beyond the financial and logistical bottom line of breaking up the enormous church organization and its resources, individual church congregations, like those in Galveston County, stand to lose or gain the most.
At Moody Memorial First United Methodist Church in Galveston, the largest Methodist congregation in the county with more than 1,000 members, the Rev. Jerry Neff, senior pastor, issued a letter to congregants last week outlining the proposal and announcing plans for town hall meetings in coming months to prepare for whatever change might come after the denomination’s general conference in May.
The split over LGBTQ full rights within the church is not a new conversation among United Methodists, and the proposal to allow traditionalists to break off into a new denomination, as proposed, is not yet an officially approved action of the church.
But the so-called Proposal of Reconciliation & Grace Through Separation, authored by a group of international bishops and other church leaders, will likely gain a vote at the general conference, Neff said.
If it passes, allowing traditionalists to split off and form a new denomination, the east Texas division, a group of 300,000 Methodists including those in Galveston County, could lose as many as 30 percent of its members, he said.
What the plan won’t change is the central purpose for being of Moody Methodist, he said.
“This is our 180th year in fellowship, and over that whole time we’ve held differing views on divorce, right to life, homosexuality, genetic engineering, gambling, alcohol use, you name it,” Neff said.
“That’s OK within our tradition. If you’re looking for one point of view, you won’t find it here.”
Neff said he personally sees the LGBTQ rights issue as a matter of justice and believes people should not be punished for their sexual orientation.
“Jesus was always broadening the circle,” he said. “I can love people on both sides of this issue.”
The Rev. Stephanie Hughes, senior pastor at St. John’s United Methodist Church in Texas City, has been preparing her congregation since before a conference last year that brought the issue to a head, kicking off negotiations among traditionalist, moderate and progressive factions in the church.
“I didn’t want my people to find out about what was happening just through media coverage,” she said. “Every local church is going to have a different mix of people. In my church there are young adults who were raised and baptized in the United Methodist Church who want full participation, regardless of who they are.”
Also within St. John’s membership of about 300 are traditionalists who are driven to question acceptance of same-sex relations by love and concern, Hughes said.
“Their belief comes from love,” she said. “I believe that. Their belief is you can’t live like this and be whole.”
Most of the questions about the schism come from traditionalists concerned they will lose their church, but wouldn’t be able to live their faith in good conscience if St. John’s remained in a United Methodist Church allowing full participation for LGBTQ people, she said.
“The only way to face this is to believe that God is working in it,” Hughes said. “The spirit is brooding over this.”
St. John’s might lose some members if the split happens, but could also gain some, she said.
“If we follow our call to spread God’s love in the world, we’ll be fine,” she said.
At the First United Methodist Church in Dickinson, the Rev. Jerry Matkin, senior pastor, addressed news of the proposed split from the pulpit last Sunday, he said.
The liturgy for the sermon was Christ’s parable of the sheep and the goat.
“I said this is a group of 16 people who came up with a plan. It’s not an official plan. None of them called or texted me,” he said. “Looking at the document — it was eight pages — I read the first page and a half and realized I didn’t need to read the next six pages.”
Matkin told his congregation the parable of the sheep and the goat should guide them as they waited to see what happened.
“When Christ’s followers asked if he would return again, he said, ‘I don’t know. But in the meantime, this is how you ought to live,’” he said. “We’re still called to feed the hungry and to welcome the stranger and we’ll do that,” he said.
“We’re going to be comfortable doing that until we learn more.”
It’s been 100 years since the Black Death came to Galveston
A seaport city that has seen more than its share of death and destruction, the island is approaching one of the most gruesome anniversaries in its long history: a 1920 plague outbreak that left more than a dozen people dead, sent a bolt of cold fear through the populace and led the city to declare war on rats.
The war was over by the year’s end, with more than 40,000 dead rats and the plague successfully eliminated.
The outbreak is not the most well-known disaster in Galveston’s often bleak history. Even other pestilence, such as yellow fever, comes more quickly to mind. But local historians argue the public health crisis caused by the plague left an enduring mark on the island.
The plague outbreak happened at a fascinating time in the island’s history, said Paula Summerly, a medical historian at the University of Texas Medical Branch. With the city raised and the seawall constructed after the catastrophic storm of 1900, Galveston was set to become an entertainment destination because of its resorts and gambling establishments.
But the city was not without strife. Away from the beach, a dockworkers strike divided black and white workers and led to violence in the streets. It was in that setting that the plague appeared.
“There was civil unrest on the port side, and bathing beauties on the seawall,” Summerly said.
Summerly has worked since 2015 to uncover Galveston’s plague history, much of it by searching the extensive medical history archives at the library.
Her discoveries have turned up newspaper articles and a doctor’s journal documenting the city’s fight with the plague. She has even found a jar containing the preserved bubo — the inflamed lymph node that gives bubonic plague its name — that was biopsied from Emil Horridge, a 17-year-old feed store employee who was the first diagnosed victim in the outbreak.
“The poor young man was buried just five hours after the autopsy at 10 at night because they were absolutely terrified,” Summerly said.
Bubonic plague kills by attacking the immune system and cutting off cells’ ability to communicate with each other. If an infection is not treated, the disease overloads the body’s natural infection-fighting abilities and causes victims to go into septic shock.
A person might not show signs of infection for five days after being bitten by a plague-ridden flea, which had bitten a plague-ridden rat. Death can occur within three to five days after symptoms emerge.
The plague can cause painful swelling in the lymph nodes, induce fever and seizures and make skin die, causing necrosis on extremities. The disease can also infect the lungs or blood stream. In any form, it can cause a quick and painful death.
Horridge’s grave can still be found in the Lakeview Cemetery in Galveston.
Like so many visitors to Galveston, the bubonic v bacterium Yersinia pestis, likely entered through the port, where ships from around the world carried not only goods but rats, Summerly said. The rats carried fleas, which are the main culprits in spreading the illness.
A hundred years later, one can still find traces of the outbreak throughout Galveston and the city’s efforts to eradicate it, said Dwayne Jones, executive director of the Galveston Historical Foundation.
While many houses in Galveston proudly display plaques stating they survived the 1900 Storm, some other buildings still bear marks of 1920 rat-proofing in the form of raised concrete barriers around their foundations, Jones said.
“The city implemented ordinances to close up the opportunities for rodents,” Jones said. The idea came from San Francisco, which had dealt with its own plague outbreak about 20 years before Galveston.
Summerly and the historical foundation partnered to create a lecture series about the plague, and her interest in the event helped solve a mystery for the historical foundation, Jones said.
The foundation restores historical houses and buildings and had encountered some with the concrete barriers, which had no obvious architectural purpose, Jones said.
Summerly’s plague research identified the barriers as anti-rat protective measures, he said.
“A lot of the corner stores from that period were rat-proofed and they’re still there, I’m sure,” he said.
Galveston’s rat-proofing efforts were extensive. In addition to altering buildings, the city declared an all-out war on rats. City crews placed poison in the rocks along the seawall and fumigated houses with cyanide to kill the rodents.
Rat catchers collected or killed more than 46,000 rats over the course of the year and delivered many of them to a laboratory set up at the corner of 22nd and Market streets, where pathologists dissected the animals in search of the disease.
Homeowners were required to pull up the floors in their homes once a week to ensure rats weren’t nesting there.
The efforts worked. The city’s last confirmed case of bubonic plague was diagnosed in 1921.
The plague is still around in the United States. These days, however, rather than in port cities, cases are most frequently found in the “four corner” states — Arizona, Utah, New Mexico and Colorado.
Since 2000, there have been an average of seven diagnoses of plague each year in the United States, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. None of the cases occurred anywhere near Galveston or the Gulf Coast.
There’s no chance the 1920 plague is still hanging around in the rats and fleas of Galveston, said Vladimir Motin, a professor in the Department of Pathology at the medical branch.
“Galveston’s doctors were so good, they eliminated the plague,” Motin said. “They had one message: Kill the rats. That poison was everywhere. You had to kill all the rats around, and then they were good.”
If plague-infested rats turned up on the island today, a similar effort to locate and eliminate them might have to take place, Motin said. Fortunately, Galveston today would have a weapon the Galveston of 1920 didn’t: antibiotics — which weren’t discovered until eight years after the island survived its brush with Black Death.
Ahead of the opening of a third cruise terminal in 2021, Galveston tourism leaders are trying to form partnerships that will encourage those cruise passengers to stay longer, and spend more money, on the island.
The Galveston Park Board of Trustees, which promotes tourism on the island, is in initial discussions with SunWard Tours, a company that specializes in tour packages for cruise passengers in the port of departure, officials said.
It’s the first step in making sure the cruisers expected to flock to the island bring money not just to the cruise industry but also to the Galveston economy, Chief Tourism Officer Michael Woody said.
“We’re always trying to find that way to further engage with the cruise passenger,” Woody said. “What we want to do is convert them into a future visitor to the island.”
That’s been a goal of the park board even before the Port of Galveston inked a $100 million deal with Royal Caribbean late last year to build a new cruise terminal at Pier 10.
In the proposed plan, cruise ships would promote pre-packaged, several-hour excursions in Galveston during the last day or two of the cruise, Woody said.
This could be a tour of historic sites or a day at the water park, among other things, Woody said, adding SunWard would help with transportation and arrange for discounts at local restaurants.
“It’s an opportunity for us to really create unique experiences for the cruise passenger,” Woody said.
Florida-based SunWard couldn’t be reached for comment. The company provides trips in Florida for cruise passengers before their ship departs or after their ship returns to the Kennedy Space Center or to take surf lessons, among other things.
The park board plans to start with post-cruise tours for people who don’t want to travel home the same day their ship pulls into berth, with the hopes of driving additional nights in hotel rooms, Woody said.
It’s a model used at other port cities, Port Director Rodger Rees said.
In 2018, 1.4 million cruise passengers spent $115 million on the island, and Galveston hoteliers estimated cruisers made up 13 percent of their room nights, Rees said.
“While we’re not in the tourism business, we strongly support the park board’s efforts to reap more economic benefits for their tourism partners from our growing cruise business,” Rees said.
Getting people to stay longer in Galveston is always a good thing, said Willis Gandhi, president of the Galveston Hotel & Lodging Association and owner of properties such as Best Western Plus, 8502 Seawall Blvd.
Some bigger groups come early and stay in Galveston a few days before their cruises leave, but most cruisers only stay in his hotel for one night, Gandhi said.
The people designing the tours ought to offer a variety of activities to appeal to different interests, Gandhi said, but worries it might be difficult to get people to stay in Galveston after a cruise.
“People are already tired,” Gandhi said. “They just want to get home.”
By the end of January, the park board aims to have a few proposed tours drawn up for SunWard’s review, Woody said. After that, it will be a matter of developing and fine-tuning the excursions, he said.
A new park maintenance program means the city’s historic cemeteries will get more, and more regular, attention, officials said.
The city’s Department of Parks and Recreation last week fielded a newly created cemetery crew, a group of four people, who will focus entirely on the upkeep and maintenance of Galveston’s historic cemeteries.
The initiative is the latest part of the city’s new parks keeper program, under which staff members are assigned to specific parks for work.
The city’s parks department always has maintained the historic cemeteries but, under the old model, a cemetery might go weeks without attention, said Mario Rabago, director of parks and recreation.
“Depending on the time of year, we might maintain the cemeteries once a week or once every couple of weeks,” Rabago said.
But under the new initiative, four people will visit the cemeteries daily to mow and to right fallen tombstones, among other maintenance, Rabago said, adding that the department formed the new teams from among existing staff members.
The city owns and manages four of the seven cemeteries in the Broadway Cemetery Historic District, between 40th and 43rd streets, as well as the Municipal and Memorial cemeteries on 59th Street and Avenue T ½.
The cemetery crew started work about six months after the city launched the parks keeper program for the other parks, Rabago said.
Under this program, a crew of maintenance workers is assigned to a handful of specific parks, rather than being scattered to different parks or facilities each day.
A worker might have mowed the grass at a park or cemetery one day and not returned to it for months, Rabago said.
The program creates a greater sense of ownership for the work and for each park, Rabago said.
“You just really want it to be a lot nicer,” Rabago said. “It’s yours. It’s not just anyone’s.”
Making sure Galveston historic cemeteries are regularly maintained is especially important because of the history they contain, Rabago said.
The cemetery on Broadway, for example, holds tombstones dating back to the mid-1800s, according to the National Park Service.
There also are some more significant improvements planned for the cemeteries, Rabago said.
The city’s planning to install several lights around the cemetery on Broadway, city spokeswoman Marissa Barnett said.
The city paid CenterPoint Energy, the island’s energy supplier, $46,148 to install decorative light poles, she said.
The city also is getting bids from companies that can repair more than 80 tombstones vandalized in November in the Broadway cemetery district, Rabago said.
Police at the time estimated $13,300 in damages, but the city won’t know exactly how much repairs will cost for the next few weeks, Rabago said.