Pastor Rudy Rasmus grew up in West End, one of the oldest black neighborhoods in Houston, Texas. Pastor Rasmus begins his interview detailing the changes throughout Houston during his childhood and early adulthood. Since 1992, Rasmus has led a community of faith in downtown Houston, making its primary goal to engage with the homeless population. To explain how he ended up as a religious leader in Houston, Rasmus provides information on his high school, college, and post-graduate years. Due to his privileged life, Rasmus felt called to help those who did not have the advantages he did. After discussing his beginnings in the religious community, Rasmus remembers his experience with hurricanes and tropical storms in Houston. The first storm he recalls is Hurricane Carla, which he witnessed at approximately ten years old. His family evacuated their home due to Carla’s chaos, and when they returned home, they found Houston devastated by the storm. From Carla, Tropical Storm Allison, and Hurricane Katrina, Rasmus developed a great deal of respect for storm systems.
When Hurricane Harvey hit, Rasmus and one of his daughters were at home seeing the storm unfold on television. After the storm passed, they rode around the city and saw significant flooding throughout Houston. Luckily, Rasmus’s home and church were relatively unharmed. Rasmus recounts his relationship with Beyonce and the help she provided for the city post-Harvey – he also recalls the help Tyler Perry provided for those in New Orleans. Rasmus concludes his interview by discussing preparations for future storms and how communities support each other in unimaginable ways during times of crisis
Interviewee: Pastor Rudy Rasmus
Interview Date: October 8, 2019
Interview Location: African American Library at the Gregory School
Interviewer: Ursula Renee McKinnis and Diego Garcia
INTERVIEWER: Okay, so today is October 8, 2019. I am Ursula Renee, and I’m here with Pastor Rudy Rasmus of Saint John’s United Methodist Church. Today, we’re at the African American Library at the Gregory School to talk about Hurricane Harvey for the University of Houston’s Center for Public History Resilient Houston: Documenting Hurricane Harvey project.
URM: So Pastor Rasmus, you are a beloved pastor, influential, global humanitarian, author, entrepreneur, and so I would like everyone to get to know more about the beginning of your journey.
URM: So would you tell us a little bit about your childhood? Like where were you born? And what was family life like?
RR: Yeah, well, first of all, thank you. It’s good to be here. I grew up in Houston in a neighborhood just west of downtown. It’s called the West End [0:01:00]. You know, historically, it’s called the West End. Now, it is sort of a gentrified territory full of townhouses. But when I was growing up, it was one of the oldest black neighborhoods in Houston. Post-World War I, families started purchasing land, which was really on the outskirts of town in the 30’s and the 40’s. But it was a community that was just a warm place. Everyone was poor, and it was a — really, an interesting place to grow up.
As a matter of fact, for those who know Houston, I-10 was actually being built during my childhood. I’m 63 years old, born in ’56. And I really watched Houston evolve. I-10 used to be my skateboard park [0:02:00]. I used to skate from downtown to 610 on that thing. And it was a wonderful piece of concrete. You know, along the way, I saw the entire city evolve.
You know, early years, I was in business in my old neighborhood — you know, some kind of productive businesses, but I was a young guy. And I needed to make money, so I evolved — became a religious leader in ’92 as a result of sort of a change in perspective and life.
From ’92 forward over the last 27 years, I have been leading a faith community in downtown Houston that was initially engaged primarily in services to homeless individuals. And that evolved into ultimately providing housing for that same demographic. So today, over the last 27 [0:03:00] years, about 20,000 people have declared membership in that faith community. We’ve helped many more thousands as a result of — really, a meal program that we operated for 20 years — 500 hot meals a day for people without food. Today, we distribute 12 tons of fresh produce a week to families without food.
URM: Wonderful. So in preparing for this interview, I know that you’ve mentioned that you graduated high school at 16 and college three years thereafter. So what was the motivating factor in determining that education would be the key for you?
RR: You know, I wished I had a motivation. I knew I had to do it, so I got it out of the way. It was — it wasn’t a — something that I really put my mind to. You know, for people who know me, they know my [0:04:00] camouflage is my beard and my funny shoes. But what they really know is I’m really a smart guy, you know, so the school part was never a challenge. It was something to get out of the way, so I could get to life.
URM: So where did you attend high school?
RR: Well, I went to high school in Dallas. So I grew up in Houston, left in the 8th Grade, finished like the ninth grade in Dallas, Texas, and then finished high school at Skyline High School in Houston — then left Skyline and went to North Texas in Denton, finished up there, came back to Dallas, worked in banking for a few years — then came to Houston and went into business with my dad. And that’s when the journey really got interesting.
URM: That’s when it really got interesting?
RR: That’s right.
URM: So actually, it sounds as if your college days were interesting, too. So I know that you’ve mentioned that you were introduced to Buddhism in college by a friend [0:05:00]. So what were some of the attributes in that faith that attracted you at that age that you may still utilize today?
RR: You know, the fact that the world is — first of all, the world is a big place. And the individual journey — spiritual journey was very attractive to me versus the institutional collective of Christianity that I’d grown up in and actually had abandoned by the time I was 13. It was — it was an opportunity to practice spirituality on my own terms. And you know, even today, I still practice spirituality on my own terms. I’m just connected to a faith group.
URM: Okay, wonderful. You mentioned that you relocated back to Houston to work with your father. Would you tell us a little bit about that? I know that he owns [0:06:00] a hotel — but whatever you want to tell us about that.
RR: Yeah, you know, my dad was interesting guy. He was an entrepreneur and really had a fascinating outlook on life — always did more than one thing, which is probably why I do five things at one time. He was — he was also a brilliant guy with — with a vision — a personal vision for not only himself but his family. He wanted to own, and that was always his mantra. Matter of fact, the core mantra I remember him saying just overall was, “Nothing beats failing like trying,” which meant I was really given a lot of leeway to experiment entrepreneurly [0:06:54]. It was just — you know, today, I reflect with friends. And those who really know [0:07:00] me know I’ve been in 19 businesses since my early 20’s. And some of them I can talk about on camera. Some of them I can’t, but it was an interesting journey.
Going into business with my dad, one of the things he wanted to do was move into the lodging industry. So at 24, we built a small motel. We rented out rooms by the hour. We catered to the sex worker trade. And it was a — it was a fascinating period in my life. Most of my young adult life I spent in and around that business along with a real estate practice, where we were buying and investing. So I had a day life and a night life that were intriguing, but both of them prepared me for later in life and helping people.
URM: Wonderful. [0:08:00] What do you think when you reflect on the earlier part of your journey? Who or what influenced you the most to become an advocate for the poor, the needy, the homeless, the hungry?
RR: You know, I think the primary advocate was the privilege that I experienced. I never had a hungry day. I never had a — really a day without materially. So ultimately, when I walked away from my family’s enterprise, the one thing I knew I would have to do would be to give back. And how did giving back look? Well, for me, it looked like helping the most disenfranchised person in the room. And that’s in any room I’ve been in over the last 63 years. I mean, whoever is there who needs the most help, that’s who I’m gravitating towards.
So as a result of ending up downtown, leading a [0:09:00] faith community in the central business district that was still highly populated by homeless men and women on a daily basis, it was kind of natural for me to gravitate towards serving the needs of that particular dislocated community. You know, over the years, there’ve been many dislocated communities that I’ve gravitated to for service. The LGBTQIA community is one of them. And you know, along the way, wherever people have been marginalized by broad society, I often find myself gravitating there as an ally and a supporter.
URM: Also, I know that you served as associate pastor at Windsor Village under the leadership of Kirbyjon Caldwell, who is known for transforming the community around his church. So would you tell us a little bit about that experience.
RR: Well, I learned a lot from Pastor Caldwell. As a matter of fact [0:10:00], Pastor Caldwell actually planted our faith community in downtown at Saint John’s. I went there working for him and ultimately transitioned into senior leader after three or four years. But over these — over these last 34 years – that’s how long I’ve known him now – I’ve found him to be one amazingly courageous faith leader — and has been a great friend and a great mentor.
URM: Well, you’ve mentioned that you were born in Houston and spent some of your early years here. So is there a particular storm that you remember that you and your family experienced?
RR: You know, I think Hurricane Carla was the one that really resonated with me. I was — I was young — maybe 8, 10 years old — in that range. And I remember there [0:11:00] being some real anxiety among my mother and father around that storm. As a matter of fact, my mom and I evacuated in a — in a VW Beetle. You know, why would we evacuate in probably the lowest profile car in American history? But we — I remember taking off up the — before the freeway was 290, it was Hempstead Highway. I remember taking off up Hempstead Highway. And literally, the rain was behind us, so we were actually okay. But I remember returning home to see the devastation. And it was — it was impactful. And you know, years later, I still remember what I saw.
URM: Oh, wow. The devastation, was it around you? Or did it affect your family? Was it your family’s property or the people [0:12:00] around you?
RR: Around us. Yeah, around us mostly. Inner city wasn’t affected greatly. You know, but there were trees down, fences down. And it looked like something had come through and really made a different in terms of damage. From that point, I always respected storms.
URM: What do you think the role of the church should be in serving those who may be affected by weather disasters?
RR: You know, the church’s history has, I think, in many cases has been muted. You know, many colleges and universities started in churches. Many of the major hospitals in most major cities were started by churches. Many of the help organizations that are [0:13:00] in existence today and still making impact were really started in rooms in churches. I think the — even though the history’s been muted, I think ultimately the church historically still shows up — maybe not to the same degree. You know, it’s a different world today. But personally, I believe the church has responsibility to the community that it’s connected to.
URM: Thank you.
DG: Alrighty. Well, let’s take a step into looking at Harvey specifically.
DG: But before I do that, why do you think that it should be important to give back to somebody?
RR: Well, you know, in my faith tradition, there is a — there is a saying. It goes to, “Whom much is given, much is required.” And I think any time a collective of [0:14:00] individuals have been on the receiving end — I think there’s responsibility to give back. Now, how that looks I think is very personal. But I do believe there is a reciprocal accountability for those who have benefited at any point in their lives from any aspect of life. There is a responsibility to give back, you know. Whether or not that’s an institutional process — probably more individual and more collective. And that’s what we’ve discovered at Saint John’s. Over these years, it’s been a collective of individuals who have come from different walks of life and different zip codes, different backgrounds and experiences but all have all felt that this is the one thing that we should be doing. And that’s how we show up in that place.
DG: That’s great. That’s great. When you [0:15:00] first — now, discussing Harvey, of course. When you first started to hear the reports of a big hurricane moving through named Harvey, what were your first thoughts and emotions?
RR: Well, I developed a great deal of respect for storm systems in Allison that flooded most of downtown and impacted areas around the city in some pretty dramatic ways. I developed even more respect on the — in the advent of Katrina. You know, we’d never seen anything like that before. And subsequently, my respect for storm systems escalated even more. You know, and then there was the Rita scenario [0:16:00] that didn’t happen. But if it had have happened while a million people were on the road, it could have been pretty devastating. And then we experienced Ike that took the roof off of our church building. That devastated quite a bit of property. It was a wind event, and that wind event I saw do damage. So Allison was a water event. Katrina was really a water event of epic proportions. And then Ike was a wind event, so Harvey — I had wind and water respect by the time I heard it was coming our way.
You know, not really knowing what to expect, you know, I remember being at home. My daughter and I — my wife was out of town. Another was away, but one daughter was at home with me [0:17:00]. She’s an adult daughter, so we went to the store. I’ll never forget this. We went to the store, bought some food and supplies. And the sun stayed out a little too long. We ate all the — we ate all of our food, man. By the time the rain started, we were looking at each other like, “Damn. We done ate all of our food, alright?”
So at that point, you know, Harvey became really interesting. We watched it, you know, kind of unfold on television. And in looking out the window and talking to friends — couldn’t imagine — just really couldn’t believe how much water had been dropped on Houston. When the skies finally cleared, we went out for a ride. And you know, I grew up along White Oak Bayou in Houston. And you know, the White Oak kind of runs [0:18:00] northwest to sort of southeast. And I had never seen that much water before. I mean, we drove over the Buffalo Bayou, and I’d never seen, you know, the Buffalo Bayou up to Saint Thomas High School, you know, at Shepherd. I mean, it was like crazy. So it was — it was quite a moment.
DG: Before Harvey, did your churches or communities have any plans in place for flooding or hurricane events at the time?
RR: You know, yeah, yeah. You know, we have dealt individual human disasters since 1992, so we just kind of know how to be present to people in the midst of crisis. It was another water event [0:19:00] happened in between — I’m forgetting the name of this one, but it mostly impacted the northwest corridor in Houston. At the time, we had a northwest campus — turned that campus into a shelter. And this might have been four years ago — three, four years ago — turned that campus into a shelter, provided housing for people for a week in that location. You know, we know — we know how to shelter. We know how to help.
DG: Are these plans planned before? Or is it just kind of —
RR: Well, it’s experiential. We have been around human disasters for so long. We just know instinctively what people need and how to care.
DG: That’s great. That’s great. I know that you mentioned that during Ike the church’s roof blew off.
DG: During Harvey, what was the impact of the facilities?
RR: You know, fortunately, our [0:20:00] downtown facilities were relatively unharmed, which really positioned us to be a staging location for supplies. And that’s really where we focused most of our energy — on being a place where we could receive goods and distribute goods. So we’ve been doing that now since the day after Harvey.
DG: Great to hear the facilities survived. Now, what about your own home? Was your own home affected in any way?
RR: No, I live in the Heights. You know, it’s interesting that the early settlers in most regions would normally build sort of the origins of a city [0:21:00] in the highest point in that city. And the Heights just happen to be one of the highest points in flat Houston. It really — and it still looks flat. So it’s just a high point in Houston. So you know, historically, the Heights has been sort of saved from water events.
DG: Okay. And during the storm or after the storm, how did you come about people? How did they get in contact with you? And how did you find those people that needed help?
RR: You know, I think after being downtown in our location for so long — and I think for caring as long as we have cared, people knew we would be there. And we were there. And people knew we would be there in a — in an intentional, caring way. And they also knew whatever we had we were going to give [0:22:00] it — give away. And fortunately, the gates just opened. And we received literally millions of dollars in goods that we distributed to the community. Folks just knew it.
DG: Something I learned while researching is, obviously, Beyonce offered tons of support for you and your community. Can you describe your relationship with you and the church and how that helped you during Harvey?
RR: Yeah, yeah, well, I’ve known her parents. And I’ve been friends for many years. I’ve known her when she was a baby. She grew up in our church, singing in the choir. So her faith formation has really been part of her experience with our faith community. And subsequently, she grew up in a faith community that cared — that provided service. So historically [0:23:00], our friendship — you know, when she began her career, she began in a group with some other singers. And early on, she would — she would basically tell me that — you know, when she was ultimately successful, she wouldn’t forget her faith community. And she has demonstrated that in multiple ways over the — over the years. But she is a friend. And now, she is a wealthy, powerful friend with a heck of a network.
And what she really did for us post-Harvey was activated her network. All of the product sponsors that are attached to her brand, she basically instructed that all of those product sponsors to send those products to us. So we got [0:24:00] fancy mattresses that roll up in a box by the thousands — I mean, just you name it. One particular group out of Cincinnati sent us, over a probably 18-month period, 60 18-wheeler loads of supplies. And today, we’re still connected to that organization. Tyler Perry called. And as a result of their friendship — called and wrote us a check for $250,000 maybe four days after Harvey.
There was one particular family from New Orleans. And Tyler Perry’s from New Orleans. There was one particular family that was in the George Brown Convention Center that he instructed us to go and get [0:25:00], you know. He said we can do whatever we needed to do with the funds, but help this family. So we mobilized and went and got this family. It was 16 people. They had all come out of two apartments in Kelly Court. We brought them out of the George Brown, got them housing, and took care of them with Mr. Perry’s money. And then the other funds were used to really mobilize and impact the recovery efforts in and around our community.
DG: So what it sounds like is that Beyonce and Tyler Perry really helped you. But what else — outside of those larger donations, what other avenues of funds did you have in order to help the community?
RR: You know [0:26:00], we have — we have been at this a long time, so we have a lot of friends and supporters. And there were thousands of people that gave five, ten bucks — a hundred bucks, thousand, you know. And there were many donors who gave not only time but materially. And one of our goals was to make sure we spent every dime of the support on the people who needed the help. And that was the benefit of having an organization with really low administrative costs. And our Bread of Life, our nonprofit that provides support in the midst of life disasters, that agency has been, you know, on the forefront for 27 years now — and still doing the work.
DG: Great, great.
RR: We’re just in between disasters right now.
DG: Knowing now what you know now about [0:27:00] what happened during Harvey and what you did do and whatnot, is there anything that you would have done differently?
RR: I’ve thought about that — and no. I think — I think we — if anything, we might have planned for a longer recovery period than we really anticipated. We thought after maybe four, five months — six months that we’d be sort of wrapping up. But we were a year and a half later still meeting needs. Now, we’re, what, two years — almost three years later now. And we’re still repairing homes. So right now, one of our territories is Pleasantville. That’s an I-10/610 area — I-10 East/610. We’re still [0:28:00] in partnership with the Red Cross on some home repair there. And there are a lot of folk in this town whose houses are still jacked up. I mean, it’s not doing well. It’s still a lot of blue tarps on houses even three years later.
So you know, it’s a lot of work to do. You know, what happens — I would tell my crew of — and my team that — you know, that we would have to move fast, because once the news cameras left town, the support for this disaster would also change. Because I’m experienced. I know, you know, when the cameras are rolling, people are very generous. When the cameras stop, generosity diminishes significantly. And it did. So now, the need is still there, but there’s no — you know, no impetus [0:29:00] to really push something to happen significantly in the lives of these folk who are now still suffering three years later.
The one thing big storms expose — and I’ve seen this over the years. But big storms really expose the deepest levels of poverty in any — in any city. What we have seen in the post-Harvey experience is a housing crisis for the poorest Houstonians. You know, for people middle class and up, insurance and other support mechanisms are in place. But for people in public housing, and especially public housing that was destroyed by the storm [0:30:00], opportunities for housing for that demographic are hard to come by, which is why our city government right now is focused on right now building 1,600 rentable units in the city. But far more are needed. But resources are going to be hard to come by.
DG: At what point during the storm did you start to think, “Okay, this storm’s a little different. This storm is pretty bad?”
RR: When it didn’t stop raining. Yeah, when it didn’t stop raining, I’m saying, “Man, this can’t be good.” You know, and it continued to rain and continued to fill up and overflow. And that’s when I really knew that this was going to be one heck of a situation, yeah.
DG: We all know [0:31:00], you know, the storm was a horrible event. But do you think that anything good came out of this storm?
RR: Yeah, yeah. You know, you know, whenever — whenever these moments occur, I think individually and collectively, you know who you can count on. You discover who you can really count on. You know who cares and who’s offering lip service to the crisis. And I think this storm exposed that like every crisis does. Every disaster exposes, you know, which agencies are going to be around to really do the work and which ones are going to wait and just make them a fundraising opportunity to fund their administrative costs until the next disaster.
DG: Well, I’m sure the community knows that you care now.
RR: Hopefully so. Yeah, man.
URM: Okay, well [0:32:00], you’ve touched on some of the things you still see two years, almost three, after Harvey. And I wanted to ask you about if you’ve seen anything related to PTSD after the storm in the people that you service.
RR: Yeah, yeah. You know, when people have survived a weather event — when it starts raining, anxiety is real. You know, I was thinking about how, you know, my friends who experienced Katrina are still experiencing Katrina 15 years later. Harvey’s not different. For people who were rescued, for people who were surrounded by [0:33:00] water, for people who got stuck in their cars, for people who — for people who watched it and took it all in, I think — I think the post-traumatic impact of that is still very real.
URM: Also, did your church assist during and following Tropical Storm Imelda? Did you find it necessary?
RR: You know, we didn’t. Imelda, fortunately, wasn’t as bad. The areas impacted were sort of out of our service area, so we — you know, we didn’t mobilize for Imelda. It was a — but it was an interesting weather event that kind of snuck up on — snuck up on our city.
URM: It did [0:34:00].
URM: Lastly, is there anything else that we have not discussed that you would like to add?
RR: No, I think the post-disaster conversation is very important. I really do — even what you’re doing in terms of documenting the — you know, sort of documenting the responses. Because we do live and learn. You know, there are things that we will know to do or not to do the next time. And for a fact, based on a warming environment and a change in climate, I don’t think we’ve seen the worst of it yet. You know, people around the world are starting to experience the impact of climate change [0:35:00]. I believe climate change is real. And the only folk who are denying the realities of climate change are people intimately connected to the fossil fuel industry — and that there’s a — when I think about the industry as an industry very similar to slaveholders, who at the end of slavery had these assets that no longer had value — but a war did ensue to make sure value remained around those assets. I think we see a lot of that in our — in the global landscape — really war is to maintain value for an industry that’s now [0:36:00] a dinosaur that needs to be replaced.
DG: And what do you — sorry to interrupt you. What do you think can remedy that?
RR: Well, investment in new energies, investment in new ways of fueling our lives. Right now, you know, we’ve very invested, especially in Houston in that industry of extracting oil. I think that asset is close to being a suspended asset that will be hanging out there ultimately and causing more harm. Right now’s the time, you know. Those who are [unclear, 0:36:56]. You know, I’ll be okay. I’m 63. I’ll be dead before the impact [0:37:00] really begins to — but I’m not concerned about me. I’m thinking about those who are coming long after me. And I think they should benefit from the same beautiful world that I’ve been — I’ve had an experience to — an opportunity to experience.
URM: That’s wonderful. Did you have any other questions?
DG: No, none at all.
URM: Well, it’s been a delight and an honor. Thank you so much.
RR: Hey, good hanging out.
DG: Thank you, sir.
RR: Good to see you. [0:37:28]