“40,000-year flood” tests resolve of Houston pastor, alumnus

A high-tech heating system was installed in the flood-damaged sanctuary of St. John’s Presbyterian Church to raise the temperature high enough to kill bacteria before it turns into mold. Photo credit: Jon Burnham


In his 10 years as pastor of St. John’s Presbyterian Church in Houston, Texas, Union-PSCE alumnus Jon Burnham (M.Div.’94) has been no stranger to flooding. Up until Hurricane Harvey hit in early September 2017, his church had been unscathed. The Category 5 storm flooded the sanctuary rendering it unusable for at least six months.This was the fourth major flood to hit the area. The first was Hurricane Ike in 2008, which damaged Burnham’s house.

“The last two years, we’ve had so-called 500-year floods in the neighborhood,” he said. “This one is 20 times worse as far as the number of people affected. It was like a 40,000-year flood.”

Photo credit: Jon Burnham

Burnham and his wife were stranded in their home as five feet of rain fell in two days. They couldn’t go anywhere for seven days since all the streets were flooded. Their home did not receive any damage and the power stayed on. His church’s sanctuary was not as fortunate. He has experienced a wide range of emotions.

“It was shock for the first few weeks and now I’m moving into anger,” Burnham said. “My sanctuary flooded but my house didn’t. If my house flooded, I’d still be in shock.”

He said the city also is moving into anger because this keeps on happening in Houston.

Photo credit: Jon Burnham

“The Federal Government is going to give $150 billion for this recovery. If they had spent three-to-five billion in the last few years, this would not have happened the way it did. It would have mitigated the situation.”

Burnham has been going around his community to see if there’s anything he can do for his church members. He was sitting in the house of his former church secretary recently. Her house had flooded and she was meeting with contractors with a blank look on her face. He said that is typical of how surreal and sad the situation is.

Flood-damaged personal belongings were piled outside homes in the Bellaire neighborhood near the church. Photo credit: Jon Burnham

Three weeks after the storm hit, a machine was brought to keep the sanctuary at a constant 126 degrees. That serves the purpose of killing bacteria and drying out the sanctuary, which could take six months to a year.

One of the good things to come from the storm is the cooperation of the faith community. Burnham said the alliance is strong between all churches and when a disaster hits, the relationship is already there.

“Houston is the most diverse city in the United States. Every religion on the face of the earth is within a 20-minute drive of my church. The faith community in this city is extremely well connected and plays well together.”

The most pressing needs are money and prayers. Burnham’s church needs $50,000 to pay its insurance deductible for repairs. And many residents need help with basic living expenses because their flood-damaged workplaces are closed.

You can help Burnham’s church by mailing a donation to:

St. John’s Presbyterian Church
Attn:  ACTS Fund
5020 West Bellfort Ave.
Houston, TX 77035