Fifteen years ago, as Hurricane Katrina bore down on New Orleans, the Rev. Willie L. Monnet Sr. and 200 members of Smoking for Jesus Ministry fled the city for refuge in Texas.
They found shelter in Southeast Texas as Katrina made landfall on Aug. 25, 2005, but three weeks later, Hurricane Rita struck their safe spot and again uprooted the congregation. They made their way to the Highland Lakes, where they put down roots.
Smoking for Jesus Ministry is celebrating 15 years in the community on Sunday, Aug. 30, with a service at 9:15 a.m. and a program at 6 p.m., both in ministry’s sanctuary, 1804 RR 2342 in Hoover’s Valley.
The public is invited to both, but there will be limited seating. The program, “Mount Up!,” a gospel musical about the congregation’s journey, also will be viewable online via Smoking for Jesus Ministry’s Facebook page.
Willie L. Monnet Sr., the founding pastor of Smoking for Jesus Ministry, and his wife, elect lady minister Claudette Monnet, smiled as they recalled the past 15 years and how God directed them to a community in Texas they didn’t even know existed.
What struck Claudette Monnet when they arrived was how welcoming residents and community leaders were to the newcomers, especially those in education.
“They got everybody into schools,” she said. “Everybody was moving on with their lives. We had a community where we could feel safe with our children. We still can’t get used to the fact that we don’t have to lock our cars all the time. I left my purse in the car while I shopped. There is a family-like atmosphere of everything we are.”
Willie Monnet recalled moving from city to city to keep the congregation together, stopping in small towns such as Lumberton and Pflugerville and big cities such as San Antonio and Dallas before temporarily settling in a Marble Falls apartment complex.
“We had 52 families living in The Vistas Apartments,” Monnet said. “Over half the congregation were children. In Dallas, it was unlikely we were going to be able to put stakes down.”
While in Marble Falls, they realized they had found a new home.
After making the decision to stay, the Monnets began searching for land large enough to build a sanctuary, permanent housing, and other structures. They came across the old Camp Buckner facility between Kingsland and Hoover’s Valley, 56 acres on which the congregation could build houses, roads, a church, and a school. It already had some livable structures.
“Everything fell right into place,” Willie Monnet said. “It was all ordained. There was housing for members and kids who needed housing, who really wanted to serve the Lord. There were even two dorms already built, one for men and the other for women.”
“The area is big and peaceful and beautiful,” Claudette Monnet added.
Since arriving in the Highland Lakes, congregation members have built lives for themselves and their children. They’ve started careers and opened businesses, including The Real New Orleans Style Restaurant, 1700 RR 1431 in Marble Falls, which provides jobs for some in the ministry.
“God has been so faithful,” Willie Monnet said. “Maybe I was numb at the time (Katrina hit), but I didn’t really get afraid. I had confidence that God was going to work it out for the good. I kept pressing. You didn’t have time to be afraid.”
“It was a time of uncertainty,” Claudette Monnet added. “I had no choice but to trust Him because I didn’t see any other way.”