As Harvey stalled over Houston, Keshia Thomas decided to start conducting search and rescue around her northside Greenspoint neighborhood. But her car, a low-to-the-ground Toyota Solara convertible, decided to join the half-million other vehicles ruined by floodwaters. So, as we all do, she put out a call to Facebook: Who has a truck?
“This is what it takes, this is what community looks like, this is what love looks like, this is what America looks like,” she said into her camera from the cab of a semi-truck bouncing down Beltway 8. “I did ask for a big truck,” the Facebook Live caption read.
Some might know Thomas from 1996, when she—an 18-year-old black woman—served as a human shield for a Klansman at an Ann Arbor, Michigan, protest that turned violent. A photographer captured that moment, and it was named one of the LIFE photos of the year. “It was the right thing to do,” she told Oprah Winfrey about that day.
In the years that followed, she volunteered at Ground Zero (arriving from Michigan, of course, with a semi-truck of supplies). She served with the Red Cross after Hurricane Katrina. In 2013, she moved to Houston, and during Harvey, carried others to safety in that semi, including an epileptic boy. And in its aftermath, she’s helping lead relief efforts out of her church on West Greens Road.
Green House International Church occupies the hollowed-out space of a former Kroger in Greenspoint. A liquor store is the next-door neighbor, the marquee a temporary vinyl banner tied to the building (the church moved to this location in January). When we visited the church days after the storm, its interior was divided into two halves: on one side, rows of tables covered with donations of food and clothing and supplies, and on the other, rows of chairs in front of a stage—the church. They were giving out free haircuts, free clothes, free meals—whatever was needed.
“The only time we’ll stop is for church service on Sunday for a few hours,” said Pastor E.A. Deckard. “We’ll praise God, and soon as we catch our wind, we’ll go right back to doing this.”
Strangely, the vibe of the whole space was that of a block party, which was maybe half attributable to the shamrock-green curtains—part of the normal décor—and half to people like Thomas. “When we did a kickoff with the volunteers,” she recounted, “I said, ‘The most important tool that you have in your toolbox is your smile and your attitude, because that travels.’”
For days, Thomas had been broadcasting live via Facebook, soliciting donations of food, money, and good vibes, which were coming from near and far through the church’s automatic doors. She’d been playing with children, going on Target runs, connecting locals with resources.
Late one afternoon, taking a break in a back room for a slice of cold Little Caesars, she marveled at the spectacle of it all through a galley window looking out on the church. “Take a look around,” she said. “Nobody here is getting paid. Not a single person. But they’re here. And they’ll be here. Doesn’t that make you feel some type of way?”
The answer was yes. But did the repetitiveness of it all ever get to her? Katrina was 12 years ago, Ike was 9 years ago, and then Harvey came along. Green House had just had a backpack drive, but needed school supplies more than ever. The church, like so many others, had to start all over again.
But no, Thomas said, she wasn’t discouraged. Instead, she pointed to the eternal wisdom of Fraggle Rock, in which the doozers—the building Muppets—are forced to rebuild over and over again. It’s a plot point that never really made sense to her until recently.
“Things are going to come and eat your structures and your things up, your backpack drive up,” she said. “But you just keep going. You keep building. What other option do you have? I refuse to surrender.”