"It's been a few weeks since we've been in the book of Matthew," Pastor Doug said. "We've been in that book for five years but something happened on September 12th that threw us off." For the people of Middletown, California, September 12th, 2015 will be a date burnt in memory as 9/11/01 is for the nation as a whole.
Last month a fire swept through thecommunity with remarkable speed and devastating results. According to Cal Fire's final report on the Valley Fire, 76,067 acres were burned. A total of 1,958 structures were destroyed including 1,280 homes, 27 multi-family structures, 66 commercial properties, and 585 other minor structures (by which I guess they mean barns and sheds and such). And this fire was the fourth in a series of fires which struck the area during the summer.
The congregation of Middletown Bible Church was, of course, afflicted greatly by the fire. Several families in the church lost their homes. In the first days of the fire there were reports that Middletown Christian School, a ministry of the church that shares the campus, had been destroyed. (Fortunately, those reports proved false. Rumors, true and false, added great stress to the community in those early days of the fire.)
The unharmed campus was offered for the use of fire fighters. P, G & E took over many of the buildings and filled the parking lot and the surrounding fields with trucks and equipment. Mercy Chefs, a non-profit, faith based charitable organization committed to serving high quality professionally prepared meals during local, state, and national disasters and emergencies, also found a place to work on the campus. (During Sunday's service there was an announcement that Mercy Chefs would return in November to serve a Thanksgiving meal for the community.)
Middletown Bible Church is providing a unique service for the community. They have opened a Community Relief Center in a downtown property donated for the cause. The purpose of the center is to meet immediate and specific needs. They accept some used goods (furniture, dishes, and appliances for example) for dispersal. But some items such as socks, underwear and children's toys must be new.
I spoke with Rachel, Pastor Doug Thompson's daughter, who is currently working full time at the facility (open Tuesday through Saturday from 10:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m.). She said that this is a ministry that God gave to the church quite unexpectedly. Besides providing for basic needs, many special needs have arisen. One woman had lost her painting supplies,and the center was able to allow her to return to work on the canvas. Rachel said the center has been able to care for people who in the past have expressed no interest in the church. She said the church hopes that beyond providing material needs, the facility will provide the hope of the Gospel. Plans are in the works for the center continuing in the long term, after the ongoing crises, providing for the poor and homeless.
During prayer time in the worship service, requests were made for wisdom for using the resources of the church for the many needs of the community. In the announcement time, first time visitors were invited to introduce themselves. A half dozen of the visitors were from various relief agencies, including a gentleman from the S.B.A. (the Small Business Administration) and two Local Crisis Response workers who will be working in the area for years to come, helping get people back in homes as well as back to work "probably living in our dirt field," someone joked.
I experienced a happy surprise during the greeting time. Marty Price, a friend I attended church with growing up, came up and shook my hand. Mindy and I had lunch with Marty and his wife, Brenda. They've volunteered through the years with Samaritan's Purse in disaster relief. He said many familiar faces appeared in the wake of the fire, people he had worked with in previous disasters. Marty said it was then, when he saw the other workers, that he realized the scope of the disaster. He said, "This is the third greatest fire in California history and maybe the fifth worst in national history. You don't expect a small town like this to receive such attention."
We had lunch at a Middletown restaurant, eating outside in a patio area. Marty called it a bit of an oasis in the midst of the disaster. Several members of the Middletown Bible congregation came to the same place, and Marty introduced us to a woman named Julie.
Julie lost her home in the fire, but was in good spirits. She and her husband recently purchased other land to build on, and they had planned to look it over at the time the fire swept their home, but something kept them from going. Her husband looked out and saw smoke, and they were going to pack up. When he saw flames, they left immediately -- and soon their house was gone. Julie was thankful her son was at work, so he had his truck and work clothes. They were home to save their dogs. She said she had real peace through all of this because of her faith in Jesus.
For those keeping track of such things, you might remember that this month is Miracles, Signs, and Wonders Month here at the blog. A portion of the Middletown Bible Church statement of faith, in the section on the Holy Spirit, reads, "Some of these gifts (e.g. prophecy, miracles, healings, and tongues) were sign gifts given to authenticate the Apostles as revealers of divine truth. As the office of Apostle has ceased and the canon of Scripture is complete, these confirming gifts have also ceased." But when I see the peaceful spirit of someone like Julie in the midst of lost, the word that comes to mind is "miraculous."
Service Length: 1 hour 33 minutes
Sermon Length: 37 minutes
Visitor Treatment: We were welcomed by a woman in the choir as we came into the sanctuary (she wasn't an usher or a greeter); visitors were asked to introduce themselves just before the greeting time (turned out we were in visitors' row...the other four people sitting in our pew were also visitors). There were several family members visiting, a couple of former residents back for a visit, half a dozen relief workers of one kind or another, and several people who either had recently or were just about to move into the area. First time visitors were given a folder with information about the church and the school. There was a slip of paper in the bulletin and one in the folder for visitors (or regulars) to fill out.
Followup by Tuesday Morning: none -- but we forgot to put our slip of paper into the offering plate. (Mindy asked someone what to do, and he said he'd put it on the church secretary's desk.)
Probable Ushers' Count: 125
Snacks: bagels and cream cheese, coffee, hot water for tea
Musicians: six men and six women singers off to one side, 2 acoustic guitars, 1 piano, 1 percussion box, 1 singer up front (all men)
Songs: All Hail the Power of Jesus' Name
Glories of Calvary
Fairest Lord Jesus (to the tune of Morning has Broken)
I will Glory in my Redeemer
Jesus, What a Friend for Sinners
Miles to place: 50
Total California Miles: 14,113
Church website: middletownbible.org