Wednesday, November 15, 2017

We Go to Church and Talk to Strangers about Fires

The Bridge Church, Santa Rosa, California
We’d already decided to spend last weekend in Santa Rosa when Mindy started looking for places where we could volunteer while we were there. It’s a good thing that she had a hard time finding a place that would let us help -- there are many organizations working on many projects, but most had more than enough volunteers for the Saturday we were available.

Eventually she remembered that Samaritan’s Purse, the international relief organization, was working through The Bridge Church in Santa Rosa (not connected with The Bridge Fresno), and she applied for Saturday morning training and work with other one-day volunteers. Due to a breakdown in marital communications (I’m sure it only happens to us), I had given up on volunteering and arranged for us to meet friends for lunch.

Nevertheless, Mindy went to the training early Saturday morning, if only to apologize that she couldn’t go out with the groups. She got permission sit in on the orientation that prepared volunteers for the work they’d be doing that day.

The group watched a video that prepared them to work at sites where homes had so recently been. They were reminded to wear protective gear, which would be provided on-site. They were trained to avoid nails and to be considerate of the homeowners, who would also be on the property. Then they were assigned to groups to go to the various area sites. Mindy had noticed a few people with The Bridge Church t-shirts, and when she asked if they were part of the church, she found herself talking with Eli Contreras, the church’s worship and young adults pastor. A few minutes later, that group was excited to find out they’d be working at the home of friends from The Bridge Church.

After the volunteers left to go to their work sites, Mindy came back to fetch me. We drove into the hills of the Fountaingrove area on the northeast side of Santa Rosa, where we were introduced to one of the property’s owners who was looking at what had been saved and what had been lost to the fire.

The house was gone except for a few stone walls, but the tree house in an oak tree was fine. Their beehives had survived the fire, but the smoke might have weakened the bees that were left, allowing yellowjackets to invade and take over the hives. She graciously allowed us to take pictures of the work on her property (Samaritan’s Purse requires volunteers to get permission for photos, and common courtesy does too).

Mindy introduced me to Eli, who was unrecognizable in Tyvek coverall and breathing mask. As we watched, Keith, the site supervisor from Samaritan’s Purse, advised people to keep away from the area around a damaged wall. That area would be cordoned off to prevent accidental injury.

People were hauling metal conduit to a pile for recycling, and everyone seemed to be in good (but not jovial) spirits. Though we were in a beautiful hilltop on a beautiful day, a sense of loss hung over the morning. Later, when some of the debris had been hauled away, the group expected to help the owners sift through the ruins of the house for belongings that might have survived the firestorm. They also hoped to catch sight of the family's cat, who'd been missing since the night of the fire.

That night, when we went to the Saturday evening worship service at The Bridge Church, we couldn’t help noticing the big Samaritan’s Purse trailer parked in the lot. We heard that the trailers had been built for NASCAR and were equipped with tools and shop materials as well as supplies for use on disaster sites.

The Bridge Church meets at the Santa Rosa Alliance Church on Fulton Road (near, but outside one of the fire evacuation areas). The Bridge was a two-location church, with one congregation meeting in the Larkfield neighborhood of northeast Santa Rosa at a Seventh Day Adventist School. The congregation had kept the equipment they set up every week in a trailer stored in the school’s parking lot, and the school was destroyed in the fire. The church assumed all their equipment was lost along with the meeting site, but when, after the fires, they were allowed back onsite, they found their trailer in perfect condition by a wall on the edge of the parking lot (we saw the trailer in the Alliance Church parking lot that evening).

The Saturday evening service began promptly at 5:00 pm with music followed by a greeting time (with a timer), more singing, then the sermon. Pastor Billy Andre was beginning a series, “Different,” on the Apostle Peter’s first letter.

In his introduction, Billy mentioned that the letter was written to a church that was enduring great persecution under the Emperor Nero (famed for fiddling while Rome burned), and the Bible verses that especially struck me were from I Peter 1 -- the quite relevant verses 6 & 7: “In this you greatly rejoice, even though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been distressed by various trials, so that the proof of your faith, being more precious than gold which is perishable, even though tested by fire, may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ.”

Billy said people of Sonoma County are suffering immensely, but not only from the fires. As is true in any time, in any place, people have struggles with health, relationships, and finances. These trials, he said, are a test of our faith, but our God is a God who can redeem painful situations.

The message was perhaps more powerful because Pastor Andre, like many in his congregation, is going through a trial of his own. His family’s home was destroyed in the firestorm, and they’re staying in their fourth residence in a month. He told about going to where his home used to be to sift through the ashes. He and his wife hoped, more than anything else, to find their original wedding rings, which had been in a dish on their dresser.

They did find them. They also found something that surprised them: a picture of Jesus. It wasn’t from a book they’d owned, and they had no idea where it came from, but there it was in the ashes where their shed had been: a reminder that God was with them.

The service closed with the song  “I Have This Hope” by Tenth Avenue North, which includes the lyrics, “I have this hope in the depth of my soul: in the flood or the fire, You’re with me and You won’t let go.”

Many of my friends lost their homes in the fires, including Mike, who I've known since elementary school. I remember biking to his house to hunt with BB guns...I accidentally shot him once. This week, his wife Carol posted on Facebook, "From this day, we move forward. Samaritan's Purse showed up today with a team of twenty people to help us sift. Beauty from ashes. God has a good plan for our family."

I trust also that God has a good plan for the people of Sonoma County, and I'm grateful that Samaritan's Purse -- and the churches in the community -- are working with them to help find it out.

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

We Go to Church and Talk to Friends about Fire

Hope Chapel and Healdsburg Community Church, Healdsburg, CA
First Presbyterian Church and The Redeemed Life Church, Santa Rosa, CA

When we messaged Mark and Lynn Williams about getting together to talk about their experiences during the fires in Sonoma County, Mark responded, “Our church didn’t do much.”

That’s what he wrote, but I knew Hope Chapel Healdsburg had housed eight Foursquare chaplains who’d come to help immediately after the firestorm. Mark and Lynn didn’t think they did anything much because they felt others had done so much more, but they still had a story to tell. Most everyone who was in the area the week of October 8 has a story, and you’re sure to hear something interesting if you say, “Tell me your fire story.”

For fifteen years before 2016’s year-long road trip, Mindy and I lived in Sonoma County. I was born in Santa Rosa and lived just outside it for the first 19 years of my life; most of my family and a lot of friends are still in the area. We decided to visit -- partly to see the damage that been done, but mostly to see how the Church was helping.

We’d gotten to know knew the Williams family through their son and daughter, who'd been part of the youth group at Healdsburg Community Church when I worked in youth ministry there. None of the families at Hope Chapel, the Foursquare church Mark pastors, lost their homes due to the fires. Nonetheless, everyone in Healdsburg knows people in other nearby communities who suffered greatly in the fire. You can’t avoid that knowledge when one out of every twenty homes in Santa Rosa was destroyed by the fires. Roughly 6,700 homes and businesses in the city were lost, and at least 8,400 structures were destroyed in the various fires that swept Northern California during October.

Pretty much everyone, especially those who weren’t directly affected by the fire, wanted to do something to help. Hope Chapel helped arrange for eight chaplains from the Foursquare denomination to come to the area from around the country. They arrived a week after the fires began, establishing three priorities: 1) Create a resource center with food, water, and clothes; 2) Provide support for local pastors; 3) Help the affected community.

At first, authorities were reluctant to accept their help, but by the time people were beginning to be allowed back into neighborhoods that had been destroyed, the chaplains were asked to accompany them to provide support.

Hope Chapel was able to provide space for the chaplains to sleep, but the church doesn't have shower facilities -- so a local gym opened up their facilities. The church fed the chaplains and provided sanctuary where, after long hard days of service, the chaplains (who hadn’t worked together before) could become a team. Some of the chaplains considered Lynn and Mark as surrogate parents.

When Mark said their church hadn’t done much, we thought it just wasn’t so.

While we were in Healdsburg, we also went to the Healdsburg Free Store. You can probably figure out what it is from the name. Clothes, household goods, and personal care items are available for people who’ve lost their belongings in the fires.

We went so we could talk to Andrea Kladder, co-pastor of Healdsburg Community Church. She was volunteering at the store with friends, and we probably shouldn’t have taken her from her work at the store to chat, but we did.

She told us that Healdsburg Community Church, like Hope Chapel, hadn’t had members lose homes in the fires. Still, everyone knew people who had been hurt. She told about two of her daughter’s good friends who’d had to move from their rental because the owner had been burned out of his own home and needed the apartment to live in himself. That family was moving out of the area because housing is now so scarce and even more expensive than it was before.

Healdsburg Community Church opened their doors during the days of the fire (many in Healdsburg were without power, so the church, which did, was a welcome haven). Now they're providing a series of seminars on active listening with a goal of training people to support one another. People recovering from their losses need to tell their stories. Most of us really don’t have much to say to people experiencing great loss, but we all should be able to listen.

On Sunday morning we were able to worship at two churches we’ve written about before; both are, in a sense, home churches for us (as is Healdsburg Community Church).

After the 8:00 am service at First Presbyterian Church of Santa Rosa I was able to talk to senior pastor Dale Flowers who said that 51 families in the congregation and another ten families that were a part of their day care program lost their homes as well. A positive element, though, was the way people are giving. The church has received $120,000 to help families in need (and some of that money came from families who’d lost their homes.)

First Pres housed people who were evacuated from their homes during the fires. The number of people varied, as various geographic areas in the community had evacuation orders imposed and lifted. Dale’s own home was in an evacuation zone, and he slept at the church. One night, the church itself received an advisory evacuation notice (this meant that people should be ready to evacuate at any time, as opposed to a mandatory notice which meant people were to leave the area immediately). Westminster Woods, a Presbyterian camp about 45 minutes away, offered to take people in, but most staying at the church decided they didn’t want to make one more move.

Later Sunday morning, we worshiped at The Redeemed Life Church, which meets in the home of our friends Todd and Heather Towner. Heather had been awake as the fire came closer and closer to their home, which is a few blocks from the Coffey Park subdivision where about 1,500 homes were destroyed. She told us about listening to reports as the fire raced over the hills along the eastern horizon she could see from her son’s bedroom window, then hearing that the fire was on the other side of the freeway a few miles away, then that the flames had crossed the six-lane freeway and entered Coffey Park. They left that night without knowing if they’d have a home to come back to.

When they were able to return home a day or so later, the area was without power, so Todd, who works from home, bought a generator. They found it was also a tool for serving their neighbors by providing a place for cell phone charging. He and Heather learned the names of neighbors they’d never really met. In the last couple of weeks, there have been two neighborhood gatherings, and the Towners trust God will use this tragedy to open doors for ministry.

It was good to see that in this time of great need, Christ’s Church is responding. As He was with Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, God was with His people through the fire, and He continues to be present as they help one another rebuild.