- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 25, 2005

TYLER, Texas (AP) — Reaching into a white plastic bag yesterday, pastor Michael W. Massar pulled out a broken tree limb — a symbol of Hurricane Rita.

“The winds are going to blow, it says in the Bible, and we want you to be strong,” Mr. Massar told the church’s children during Sunday services at the packed First Baptist Church.

Rita caused far less damage in east Texas than feared when it blew through on Saturday, and many gathered in churches to give thanks for their survival.

“Today is a good day because, in spite of everything that took place this weekend, in the last few weeks, we are gathered here for worship,” said the Rev. Robert Bardin, minister of discipleship.

Several of the evacuees were seated in a special section and greeted like dignitaries. They exchanged smiles and handshakes with church members and were invited to take communion.

Tyler had girded for days of rain, flooding and tornadoes because of warnings that Rita could stall over the area, but that didn’t happen. Instead, Rita dwindled to a tropical depression and moved quickly up the Mississippi Valley and into the lower Ohio Valley.

Houston also was spared a direct hit.

“Thank God we have electricity to hold Mass,” the Rev. Kevin Collins told about 80 parishioners at Immaculate Conception Catholic Church in eastern Houston. “Thank God we are fine. We are praying for all the people in Louisiana and Texas who were affected by Hurricane Rita.”

Outside the church, Shirley Vasquez called the hurricane a test of faith.

“I don’t believe this was an act of God. It was an act of Satan, trying to take over and do so much to us and see how strong our faith is,” Mrs. Vasquez, 55, said. “Your faith is what keeps this from happening.”

At the New Light Christian Center Church in Houston, people sang and swayed as the choir belted out one gospel number after another. Pastor Irishea Lewis said the church would seek people affected by Rita and make preparations to aid them, in addition to its Katrina relief efforts.

“We thank God that we were spared and everyone is safe,” Miss Lewis said.

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