by Vance Morton* & Ennis Daily News Reports
To say that this winter has been brutally cold at times (at least for us Texans who are built to thrive in 100+ temperatures during the summer months) would be about as much of an understatement as saying Noah and family experienced an unusually active rainy season one year. When the latest winter storm blew through Texas early in March, temperatures rapidly dropped from the 70s to the low 20’s. The storm also brought more than cold air, it came complete with a wintery mix of precipitation that meteorologists are calling “.” Highways were quickly coated with thick sheets of ice leaving motorists stranded and out of real options for shelter as hotels in communities along the highways hastily filled.
Once it became clear that there was going to be a need for shelter for travelers stranded in and around the community of Ennis, Texas, the people of decided it was time to dole out some good old-fashioned radical hospitality and quickly got to work with city officials to provide a safe and warm place for travelers stranded on Interstate 45. Cots, blankets and warm food were prepared for as many as 100 people unable to find accommodations at local hotels.
Steve Holston, pastor of the Ennis First United Methodist Church, said that once it got dark and parts of Interstate 45 had to be closed, the church began to work with local law enforcement and opened their doors to those with nowhere else to go. “We were probably ready by 10:40 that night (Sunday, March 2),” Rev. Holston said. “There were people coming in until 3 a.m.”
Valerie Gaunt, a mother with Texas Rockstar Cheer from League City, Texas, told Phil Banker, a photojournalist for the , that the team was returning home from a cheer competition in Dallas when they hit the icy roads on Interstate 45.
“(Interstate) 45 wasn’t moving,” Mrs. Gaunt reported. “A police officer at the Whataburger came in and said that 45 was done, and we were all welcome to come to the church here.” After making several unsuccessful attempts to find rooms at local hotels, the Rockstar Cheer team made its way to First Ennis. “We got to the church around 1 a.m. and were completely grateful for the hospitality.”
Keith Swanson, the sponsor of the Garland High School step team, told a similar story, only going the other direction. Mr. Swanson and his students were leaving an event in Houston and heading north to Garland, Texas when the icy weather struck. “We noticed after we left Madisonville [approx. 150 miles from Garland], that there was a lot of ice on cars,” Mr. Swanson said. “Once we got about 70 miles from home, we saw backups upon backups. It was very scary.”
Tommy Copeland, FUMC Ennis’ coordinator, noted that the church has been called upon for similar relief efforts in the past thanks not only in part to the space within the church’s Family Life Center, but also because several church members are trained American Red Cross volunteers. “It is a mission our church has taken on,” Mr. Copeland expressed. “It is all part of our mission to be the hands and feet of Jesus Christ.”
Many who found sanctuary from the storm at First Ennis expressed their gratitude toward the church for opening their doors to strangers and providing food, shelter and comfort. “It’s been beautiful,” Mr. Swanson said. “They’ve had everything here for us. We came here and they had cots and blankets and all kinds of food. They’ve been more than courteous, they’ve been a blessing.”
*Vance is the director of Communications and IT for the Central Texas Conference UMC.