It was Tuesday morning in Sulphur, Louisiana, and Rev. Austin Rinehart, an associate pastor of Henning Memorial United Methodist Church, was worried about Tropical Storm Harvey as it approached Louisiana.
His southwest Louisiana community didn’t have enough beds to shelter the anticipated number of local evacuees, many of whom still bore the scars of Hurricane Rita in 2005. Plus, officials were telling local pastors to expect busloads of people from Texas who had nowhere else to go.
Tropical Storm Harvey was coming from the south and evacuees were coming from the west.
Rev. Rinehart did not know God was sending help from the northeast through a friend and colleague in the United Methodist connection.
Around lunchtime, Rinehart received a call from that friend, Rev. Chad Brooks, pastor of Foundry Church, a United Methodist church in Sterlington, just north of Monroe.
“Hey, what do you need?”
Rev. Brooks and his team went into action. They quickly started a Facebook campaign to raise money and went shopping. As the donations came in, Brooks bought every air mattress he could find.
“I think Chad really likes to buy places out,” Rinehart said of his friend.
True to his reputation, Brooks stormed through every Walmart in the Monroe area. “We knew we could get $8 twin air mattresses at Walmart,” he said. “It costs $450 to buy out all the twin and queen air mattresses they carry.”
Rev. Brooks knows all too well about air mattresses. His church ministered to hundreds of flood victims in the Monroe area during a 500-year flood event 18 months earlier.
“We know what it’s like,” he said.
By noon Wednesday – about 24 hours after the initial phone call - Rev. Brooks and two members of Foundry’s congregation left Sterlington for Sulphur with a trailer full of air mattresses. No Walmart was safe in their path.
“We bought out the Pineville Walmart along the way,” he said.
By Wednesday afternoon, the two pastors and friends were reunited at Henning Memorial in Sulphur as they unloaded more than 200 air mattresses.
“There is a sense of connection, and that connection creates a spider web of influence that’s stronger than anything out there,” Brooks said. “That’s why I love being a United Methodist, and my congregation loves being Methodist.”
“Now, everyone down here knows the Methodists have the air mattresses,” Rev. Rinehart said.
Rev. Brooks said he’s planning another trip to Sulphur to deliver more air mattresses, but not right away.
“We’re still getting donations, but we have to give Walmart time to re-stock.”