The Church Being the Church as Fires Rage in California

California wildfire

As stories of devastation continue emerging from California’s deadliest and most destructive wildfire, so do stories of generosity and outreach. Churches and Christians are stepping up to provide shelter, food and medical care while first responders battle flames throughout the state.

In Northern California’s Butte County, the Camp Fire that began November 8 has burned 135,000 acres, killed at least 48 people, and destroyed nearly 9,000 structures. Southern California’s Woolsey Fire, which began last week near Malibu, has burned 97,000 acres, killing at least two, destroying 435 structures and displacing 200,000 people.

More than 100 people in Northern California are still missing, mostly senior citizens from the town of Paradise, which was nearly leveled. Spotty cell phone coverage is hindering efforts to locate survivors. Many evacuees had little notice, and some died in vehicles trying to outrace the flames.

Meeting People’s Urgent Needs

After the Camp Fire damaged Feather River Hospital in Paradise, volunteers gathered to provide round-the-clock medical care at East Ave Nazarene Church in Chico. As soon as Pastor Ron Zimmer posted on Facebook that the church would open its doors, “volunteers rolled in,” he says. Many patients receiving care there are elderly or have chronic conditions. Earlier this week, about 200 displaced people were staying at the church. “This is what we’re supposed to be doing,” Zimmer says.

Church members throughout the fire zones are providing meals for victims. “There are an awful lot of homeless people right now,” says the Rev. Dave Rieck of First United Methodist Church of Willows. Rieck, who doesn’t know if his home was spared, says, “People desperately need some kind of answer.”

Chaplains from the Billy Graham Rapid Response Team are in the fire zones, helping people “get through just the next hour of their life,” says Al New, the team’s emergency response manager.

At Magalia Pines Baptist Church, Pastor Dave Crowder took shelter with about 30 people he was helping to evacuate. Before they could leave the church, flames “exploded,” with fire “on all sides of us.” The group and building were “totally unscathed” the next day, Crowder says, but everything surrounding the church is destroyed. The pastor’s home burned, as did most buildings in town. Because Magalia Pines Baptist Church is one of the town’s few remaining structures, firefighters are staying there. Rebuilding will take years, Crowder says, but “all through that…our church will be ministering.”

How You Can Help Battle the California Wildfire

Through their relief arms, denominations are gathering donations for wildfire victims. The Presbytery of Sacramento, for example, is accepting money here. UMCOR, the United Methodist Committee on Relief, has an online giving site here. At the Red Cross website, contributors can direct funds toward “California Wildfires.”

At Redeemer Evangelical Lutheran Church in Chico, “Our people have…opened their hearts and their wallets, and they’re supporting one another,” says the Rev. Donald Jordan. “We’re OK for right now,” he says, but more needs will become clearer when flames subside.

The Rev. Michael R. Lange, president of the California-Nevada-Hawaii District of the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod, requests prayers for safety, wisdom and opportunities for people “to be the light of Christ to their community.” Natural disasters end up being “an amazing time to give witness to the power and compassion and glory of God,” he says.

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Stephanie Martin
Stephanie Martin, a freelance journalist, has worked in Christian publishing for 26 years. She’s active at her church in Lakewood, Colorado, where she lives with her husband and two teenage daughters.

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