HOUSTON – From hurricanes to earthquakes, churches and faith-based organizations have taken the lead assisting victims with timely aid – a point not lost on the government, the media, or the people in need.
As members of Houston's First Baptist Church, Jeremiah and Audrey Johnston understand the extent of the outreach and services churches like theirs provide.
Yet, their appreciation only grew after what they had experienced during Hurricane Harvey.
Epic Flood Warning
Days of unending rain sent a nearby river surging to biblical proportions.
"They actually said this was going to be an 800-year flood high for the Brazos River," Jeremiah explained. His home sits two miles away from the same river that had flooded in 2016.
At the time, the National Weather Service had been warning the Brazos River would crest at 59 feet, several feet higher than the previous year.
The boundaries of the Johnston's home, which sits on two acres of land, started to resemble a moat.
"To see our back yard turn into a lake and see the kids' swing set – the water come up on that, again, it was just terrifying," Audrey recalled.
Initially, county officials told residents to shelter-in-place. The couple filled the family car with gas and purchased enough food and diapers to last five days. Still, with each passing hour the outlook worsened.
"Then we're told, 'Don't hide in the attic. Go to the roof,'" Jeremiah recalled. "And that's when I freaked out, because how do you go on the roof with five kids? How do you go on the roof with triplet boys?"
Then came the mandatory evacuation order, warning Fort Bend County residents they'd have around 24 hours to flee or risk being stranded with no guarantee of rescue. Four hours later, while the couple and their five kids were asleep in the master bedroom, an Amber Alert sounded on their phones, advising residents to leave at first light.
"Police started going door-to-door knocking on homes in Fort Bend County," Jeremiah said. "It's 6:00 a.m. We are grabbing our kids. We go from sheltering-in-place to being mandatory evacuated."
Living Through a Nightmare
Johnston and his wife scrambled to pack their children and took off. He had already studied the suggested escape routes, but the nonstop rain outmatched even the most well-informed plan.
The family embarked on an hours-long journey attempting repeatedly to find a way out of the city. Each time, they faced major obstacles.
Flooding closed five of the routes they tried. With nowhere to turn, they were forced to make the unenviable choice of stalling on a flooded roadway or driving head-on into oncoming traffic. They reluctantly chose the latter.
"We have our hazard lights flashing on our vehicle," Jeremiah recalled. "I'm flashing and I'm doing my horn, and I'm praying. And, I think it took 10 years off both of our lives."
"We didn't know going forward if there was another car," Audrey added. "Thankfully, there wasn't."
The Johnstons managed to escape to Waco, approximately 190 miles north, where they met up with family friends who prayed with them. After feeding the kids at a restaurant, they continued on to Dallas.
"When we got to hotel that night, I broke down, because finally I realized we were safe," said Jeremiah.
Renewed Hope in the Church
The couple told CBN News they survived eight days away from their home in Richmond, Texas relying on the kindness of churches and other Christians – strangers and friends alike – who offered up their homes and items for the 13-month old triplets and their two other children, Lily Faith and Justin.
"There was an outpouring of love unlike I've ever experienced," Jeremiah said. "We were essentially homeless, [but] we must have had people from 30 to 40 different states say you can come live with us."
The couple compared the churches' rush to provide aid to the role of "first responders," adding that it renewed their appreciation in the power and vitality of the Christian faith.
"It's been amazing to see the church at work and to step up and be the hands and feet of Jesus," Audrey said.
When the order was finally lifted a week later, the Johnstons returned to find their home nearly intact. The most extensive damage was mold and water damage in the master bathroom.
Audrey saw their good fortune as a means to give thanks and help others who didn't fare as well.
"Because the Lord allowed our home to be spared, it's our duty and honor to go help those who weren't as fortunate," she said.
Without the Church, 'The Country Would Starve'
In the wake of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, churches have proven to be invaluable partners, outpacing the work of the government as reported by USA Today and the Washington Times.
Jeremiah, who is a professor at Houston Baptist University and leads the Christian Thinkers Society, believes these storms serve as reminders of the significance of the church.
"There are voices that say Christianity is passé. God is irrelevant – that church is so irrelevant. We don't need the church anymore. Guess what? No one was saying that after Hurricane Harvey," he said.
Johnston points to Christians who volunteer after disasters or churches who feed the homeless as evidence of the vibrancy and effectiveness of the modern church.
"What would have happened if there was no church?" Jeremiah posed as a question during his interview with CBN News. "The country would starve."