Through the thick smoke that has blanketed large parts of Northern California, Foursquare churches have seen and responded to an opportunity to bring God’s peace to communities in the eye of the fiercest firestorms in the state’s history.
Opening their homes to evacuees, providing supplies to those forced to flee with literally just the shirts on their backs, and offering comfort to others who have lost everything, Foursquare pastors and members have been heroic since the fires began to burn out of control last week.
At least a dozen Foursquare families—with more possibly to be added to the list as a full assessment of the damage becomes possible—are among the several thousand whose homes have been destroyed by the flames, which have left at least 40 dead and several hundred still missing. One church member was hospitalized after a fall while inspecting one of their rental properties.
Retired firefighter Kelly Slater ignored a voluntary evacuation notice as the fire burned within a mile of The Lighthouse (Santa Rosa Foursquare Church) in Santa Rosa, which he pastors with his wife, Mary. Instead, he stayed to water down the buildings on campus so they were protected and ready to be used to help others.
The fires have been on a scale bigger than anything he has experienced in his 28-year career, he says. “I can’t get my mind around how big and vast the devastation is,” states Kelly, noting how one residential neighborhood that had been reduced to rubble “looked just like a prairie.”
Coordinating with Foursquare Disaster Relief (FDR), which has been helping the Central Pacific District respond to the disaster, The Lighthouse has become a distribution center—and even a temporary home for some. The church’s worship pastor, Alvereti Yaya, and his family have been staying there since becoming one of three in the congregation to lose their homes.
At The River (Ukiah Foursquare Church) in Ukiah, where several families lost properties, Pastor Mike Dyer and members opened their homes to family, friends and others forced to flee communities closer to the fire. “It’s been an open-door policy,” he says.
That includes the church itself, where they are offering snacks and water, and “a place for people to just come and pray and relax,” Mike explains, “somewhere they can re-center.” The church recently hosted a community prayer meeting. Mike and some church members also visited a local shelter to offer comfort and prayer to people there.
Other Foursquare churches involved in ministry response activities in their communities include Hope Chapel (Santa Rosa 3 Foursquare Church) and Napa Foursquare Church. Meanwhile, Hope Chapel Healdsburg (Healdsburg Foursquare Church) is due to host an FDR team arriving this week.
That group’s deployment follows an FDR advance team visit to assess needs and opportunities for help and support. FDR volunteers will help man official disaster relief projects and train local Foursquare members for long-term spiritual care ministry.
The spiritual and emotional needs of those impacted will be there long after the fires have been extinguished, notes Jason Reynolds, FDR’s national coordinator. “With so many homes and business burned to the ground, some people have lost literally everything, and that can create a lot of insecurity,” he says.
Central Pacific District Supervisor Bill Chaney applauds the way Foursquare churches in the path of the fires had responded.
“They have been nothing short of heroic,” he affirms. “They have stepped up to the plate. When their own houses are threatened and they are evacuated, they are not worrying about themselves, they are looking out for other people. They are amazing leaders in their community who have literally opened their arms and their doors.” He and the local pastors appeal for prayer as they continue to try to serve their communities.
“Our job is to love people as they process and have questions,” Mike adds. “It’s the ministry of presence—just being there, and giving people a place to lean and find support when they need it.”
Kelly says his community “took a hit,” but everyone has come together to help and support one another. “Pray that we could continue to do it with stamina, endurance and sensitivity,” he asks, “and as long as we need to, effectively, until we start to feel some sense of restoration.”
Bill high-fives FDR’s help in the response to the fires. “There is no way we could be doing what we are doing in an organized fashion without them,” he states. Having trained volunteers ready to be deployed in times of crisis, as his district has done, has proved to be critical, he adds, encouraging other churches to develop preparedness partnerships with FDR.
“Take advantage of our crisis to elevate the importance of getting your congregations involved in FDR, so that when a crisis happens in your neck of the woods, you are ready to respond in a very efficient and effective way,” he recommends.