Rev. Chris Singer ’91, MA ’03, is the recipient of the 2018 Servant Leadership Award, which he will receive at Concordia’s annual Gala of Stars in April 2018.
Chris spent 18 years on staff at St. John’s Lutheran Church in Orange before moving northwest of Houston, Texas, three years ago to be the senior pastor of Trinity Klein Lutheran, a church of 3,600 or so people. His wife, Jeanette ’92, is the children’s minister.
They never expected Hurricane Harvey to flood their home, or for the church to be featured nationwide on NBC News.
“We thought the worst that would happen was we would lose power,” Chris says. “We had a generator and stocked up on food. We were ready to ride the storm out.”
By the second day we had 300 volunteers.
Rev. Chris Singer ’91, MA ’03
But things didn’t go as planned.
Saturday night, the Singers had dinner with friends right down the street. Rain was coming down, but nothing unusual. Chris planned to drive into the church early Sunday morning and send a video message out to announce they had canceled services, just to keep everybody home safe.
But at 5 a.m., when Chris woke up, water was already up over the sidewalk and on their lawn.
“I woke up my wife and said, ‘We’ve got to get out of here,’” he recalls. But the water was too deep in the street to drive their new Ford Explorer away. Frantically, he and his sons tried to barricade the doors with sand bags, plastic and tape. Still, “the water just kept coming” up the driveway, Chris says.
They began moving furniture quickly upstairs. Twenty minutes into that process, Jeanette called from the first-floor bedroom: “Chris, it’s coming in through the floor!” By the time they escaped out the back door, water in the home was waist-deep. In the street it was chest deep. The Singers, with their two boys, waded for two blocks and were rescued by people from the congregation who had brought trucks to the water’s edge.
Dazed, they arrived at the church “pretty much in shock,” Chris says. “We didn’t know where we would go, and didn’t want to put others out.”
Finally, friends insisted they come home with them. By the next morning, flood waters had risen and trapped a number of people from the church.
“Five other families and us started praying and decided to do something,” Chris says. “Before you knew it, we had mobilized search and rescue teams using social media, phones and texts to reach different member families. As we found out which areas were hit, we targeted families we knew were in that area.”
The opportunities we had at Concordia to lead and try and learn were important to what we’re doing today and carrying us through situations like this.
Families from the church volunteered boats, trucks, coats and more.
“They would drive their truck as far as they could, then jump on jet skis and boats and move into neighborhoods,” Chris says.
They pulled out around thirty families, only intending to shelter them at the church for a few hours until they were retrieved by family members. Then calls came from the sheriff’s department and fire department asking for help because shelters were filling up fast.
By Monday afternoon, a line of cars was pulling into the Trinity parking lot dropping off towels, blankets, pillows and food. The church’s gym was set up with cots, pillows and blankets for those staying overnight.
“By the second day we had 300 volunteers and they were awesome because things were shifting by the hour,” Chris says.
As for his own house, a guy who had been there jet skied up to it without realizing he had gone over a 6-foot wooden fence immersed in water.
As the water receded in the days that followed, damage was everywhere. The Singers lost couches, a piano, desks, bedroom furniture, clothing left in dressers, fridge, washer, dryer, oven and more. The process of mucking out and ripping out began.
“At St. John’s I had led several teams to help after Katrina, so I kind of knew how this stuff was supposed to go,” Chris says. “But when I got inside [my own home] it was the most paralyzing feeling. You’re trying to make decisions about every part of your life—things you’ve gathered and cherished, mementoes. Every detail was just overwhelming.”
Did it have to take a hurricane for us to do what we should have been doing all along?
People from his own congregation came to help, but Chris felt flat-footed. “I tried to turn on the leader thing and say, here’s what we’re gonna do,” he says. “I finally looked at a lady from our church and said, ‘I have no idea what to do.’ She said, ‘Pastor, go outside. I’ve got this.”
A team cleaned up and ripped out the drywall and carpets. Trinity began teaming with Salem Lutheran Congregation to coordinate local efforts.
“It’s one of the beautiful parts of this story,” Chris says. “It was just great. We mucked out over 200 homes, then settled on fifty that would have the biggest struggle, with the goal to get them back in homes.”
While mucking out, spraying bleach and waiting for it to dry before doing anti-microbial treatments, Chris received an email from a producer at NBC News asking about what the church was doing. That led Al Roker, NBC’s weatherman, to choose Trinity Klein as one of his three charities to highlight in 2017. He came to film a segment with the Singers—and brought with him $100,000 in support.
“That was a huge blessing,” Chris says. “Al Roker looked at us and said, ‘I can’t believe what you guys are doing. The fact that your own house is devastated—we need more people in the world to help others when they’re struggling.'”
That money is now employing roofers, plumbers and electricians who are fixing damaged houses. Volunteers, including teams from local schools Orange Lutheran High School and St. John’s Lutheran, have come from all over the country to lend labor. LCMS Lutheran Disaster Relief brought in two trailers of generators, vests and supplies for volunteers.
“Jeanette and I have found ourselves at moments saying we are so upset for what we’ve gone through with the hurricane, but the very next moment saying we’re so very thankful for the hurricane,” Chris says. “That’s probably the best way to put it. One of the phrases is, ‘Did it have to take a hurricane for us to do what we should have been doing all along?'”
At CUI, Jeanette played volleyball; Chris played soccer and was chapel coordinator.
“Concordia gave me a lot of opportunities to think about vocation and serving God, and to dream about how we could apply some of these great truths to be a blessing in different ways,” Chris says. “The opportunities we had at Concordia to lead and try and learn were important to what we’re doing today and carrying us through situations like this.”