James Ramos, Catholic News Service
HOUSTON — Wearing a pair of black cowboy boots, Jim “Mattress Mack” McIngvale eyed a growing line of 150 people, each waiting to meet him. Then, with a smile and sometimes a selfie, he gently directed weary flood victims to a warehouse full of cleaning supplies and food and water — much-needed resources as Houston recovers from Hurricane Harvey.
During the storm, which inundated the fourth-largest city in the nation with 20 to 52 inches of rain, the local Houston legend – known for his TV catchphrases, enthusiasm and same-day delivery service – became a worldwide icon of generosity overnight.
In Harvey’s chaotic aftermath, McIngvale said his Catholic faith and duty as a person of goodwill inspired him to open his three large Gallery Furniture stores as evacuation shelters, housing flood victims from across the city, many who escaped their homes via boat.
The second day of the storm, a 2-year-old girl and her family, all shivering and sopping wet, approached him.
“It looked like they had gone swimming,” he said.
Harvey’s rains also dropped temperatures some 20 degrees below normal. The girl, the only English speaker for the family, asked him if she and her family could stay at his store, which of course they could.
As word spread that his store was a safe place of refuge, more and more victims started arriving. From that day on, McIngvale said he didn’t go home for a week.
“This is my obligation to help my people, what else can I do?” he said. “That’s what I was taught when I went to Catholic school.”
He attended Catholic schools in Dallas before playing football for the Longhorns in Austin.
McIngvale sent his own delivery trucks to help rescue those stranded in their homes by floodwater, joining the already hundreds of personal and military boats already on rescue missions. In another location, he welcomed hundreds from the Texas Army National Guard also assisting with relief efforts.
He said he was encouraged by relief efforts by parishes across the region, including his own Assumption Catholic Church in Houston that became an impromptu shelter during Harvey.
“The church is there to help people,” he said.
McIngvale, who normally greets people at his store, stayed on the front lines and continued to welcome people streaming into his 100,000 square-foot business seeking shelter.
What he saw disheartened him, he said. “Seeing the devastation on these people’s faces,” is tough, he said, noting that Harvey did not discriminate with “anguish, anxiety and stress.”
But still, McIngvale said the solidarity and enduring faith of the people who lost everything has inspired him. He was also incredulous when people questioned his decision to open his stores as a shelter.
“What the hell else am I supposed to do? Let my people drown?” he said. “It wasn’t a choice, it was an obligation, there’s a big difference. That’s the way I was raised, that’s what my parents taught me, that’s what I needed to do. There’s nothing to it, it’s who I am. I’m part capitalist, I’m part social worker.”
This wasn’t McIngvale’s first time with hurricane relief. In 2005, he helped contribute to relief when the Houston Astrodome opened its doors as a shelter for Louisiana evacuees from Hurricane Katrina.
McIngvale said he will continue to help while people remain in need. He called others to “keep the faith.”
“The recovery is going to be two or three years,” he said. “It’s a great time for the Catholic Church to shine in community service. I think people will see that this is how we’re supposed to be. This is not extraordinary. This is how we are supposed to be.”
Editor’s note: Information about contributing to storm relief efforts is available at the Texas Catholic Conference website, https://tinyurl.com/ycn4dtka. Catholic Charities USA also is accepting contributions at https://tinyurl.com/ybdqhagz. The Richmond Diocese took a collection for Catholic Charities USA the weekends of Sept. 9 and 23.