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“Mattress Mack”: The faith and radical hospitality of a hero of Harvey

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The Houston businessman hosted hundreds of flood refugees in two furniture stores, but this was not his first rodeo.

Two of the many islands of refuge where flooded-out residents in Southeast Texas could stay while waiting to get back to their homes were the two Houston furniture stores owned by Jim McIngvale, known locally as “Mattress Mack.”

“Absolutely chaotic,” was the way McIngvale summed up the situation at Gallery Furniture when reached  by phone last week, putting this reporter on hold several times to answer other calls. “Beaumont got its city water cut off at midnight, so we’re hauling a truckload of water to them right now.”

For the 400 or so Houstonians staying in one 160,000-square-foot showroom, and the 400 in the other, however, the chaos was nothing compared to what was going on in their personal lives. And they were grateful for Mattress Mack’s hospitality.

When Houston started to flood, McIngvale posted an invitation to anyone who needed shelter. He even gave out his personal cell phone number.

“We sell home theater furniture that you watch TV in, they’re sleeping on that. They’re sleeping on recliners, sleeping on sofas and love seats. We have sleeper sofas, they pulled them out and slept on that,” McIngvale told National Public Radio. “They’re sleeping on hundreds of mattresses throughout the store. They’re sleeping on the couches — wherever they can find a place that’s comfortable, and God bless ’em.”

He sent his company delivery trucks out to neighborhoods to bring people to his stores.

It wasn’t the first time McIngvale opened his stores to flood refugees. He also did so during floods last year and when Hurricane Katrina hit 12 years ago. He built his stores on elevated concrete to make them floodproof, according to NPR.

“Everything’s good, you know,” McIngvale said in an interview with Aleteia. “God’s grace is sustaining.”

Answering a question about how long he’s prepared to let flood refugees stay, he said, as with a shrug of the shoulders, “A month? However long they need to be here.” He said that a lot of people were bringing donations to his stores, which had turned into collection and distribution points. “The turnout from the community is very heartwarming,” he commented.

McIngvale is known as a philanthropist. Born in Starkville, Miss., he lives by the motto, “Grateful for everything, entitled to nothing.” For 30 years, Gallery Furniture has been holding a Christmas Giveaway, outfitting needy Houston area families’ homes with brand new furniture. Helping others is “an obligation,” he told the Clarion-Ledger. “We all have a responsibility for the well-being of our community. If we’re not going to take care of our fellow citizens, what kind of people are we?”

Six years ago, when three Nashville Dominican Sisters were sent to help start Frassati Catholic High School in Spring, Texas, they were taken to Gallery Furniture to speak with McIngvale.

“He wasn’t in the store, but he had left a message with his store manager to tell the sisters ‘to get whatever they needed for the new convent,'” Sister Anna Laura Karp, Student Activities Director at the school, told Aleteia. “This was a completely unexpected surprise to the sisters—and such a wonderful gift as they had just set out to find a convent and furnish it.”

The grateful Dominicans called back later to thank McIngvale, and, as Sister Anna Laura relates it, “when he came to the phone, the first words out of his mouth were, ‘To Praise, To Bless, To Preach.'”

That’s the motto of the Dominican Order.

It turns out McIngvale is a product of Dominican education, and when he grew up in Dallas in the 1960s, his parents had helped start Bishop Lynch, a Dominican high school.

“He said that he attributes much of the way he runs his business to his Dominican education,” Sister Anna Laura said. “We love to take people by Gallery Furniture to meet Mack and see first hand the creative ways he does business, helps people, and builds a culture of life.”

By that, she meant “giving primacy of place to the human person and the family.” And it takes several forms.

“Parents feel comfortable bringing their children with them to shop for furniture because the store is definitely kid-friendly,” Sister Anna Laura said. “This becomes evident as soon as you walk in the front door, where there is an area designated for jumping on mattresses. His store also features large exotic birds and capuchin monkeys. In the back of the store is a cafeteria, where people eat free every day.”

And not only to customers, she said, but for anyone who who just needs a meal.

“This dining area is a cell phone free zone,” Sister Anna Laura continued. “Mack explains that he has this policy because we don’t live by food alone, but need companionship—saying that we need to be present to each other, talk face to face with one another because we’re made to live in community.”

Thankfully, the furniture McIngvale had donated to Frassati, along with the rest of the school and convent, stayed safe and dry during Tropical Storm Harvey, although eight families among faculty, staff, and students did experience flood damage.

McIngvale regarded the storm and the flooding as “a great issue for us to try to overcome.”

“And as citizens and as Christians, we shall overcome,” he said. “The good will conquer evil—that’s why we’re here.”

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