When disaster strikes, those impacted can usually find some hope and comfort from what remains of their community, but that is not the case in Paradise, Calif., and surrounding areas, where the most devastating fire in the state’s history consumed almost everything in its path.
That makes the support and sense of community survivors can find through churches even more essential for thousands of people who fled with just the clothes on their backs—and heightens the opportunity for Foursquare congregations in the area and Foursquare Disaster Relief (FDR) to demonstrate faith in the face of overwhelming loss.
For Chris Hines, pastor of Paradise Foursquare Church, which was one of some 20,000 properties lost in the flames along with his own home, that means shepherding his small congregation—some scattered far away, in temporary accommodation—and encouraging them as they start to rebuild their lives. “We don’t want any more things in their lives to vanish,” he says.
There were tears and prayers when members of the Paradise church met for the first time after their emergency evacuation, at nearby Life Church (Chico Foursquare Church) in Chico. The city has become a main center for many of those left homeless, with Life Church serving as a hub for some of those displaced. FDR first response team members catered a dinner at Life Church for the Paradise congregation members and presented attendees with new Bibles to replace those they had lost, and journals, with gifts for the children.
“It was a great time of ministry and prayer, and encouragement and healing,” says Jay Donnelly, FDR’s U.S. deputy director, who has been overseeing the two teams of chaplains and trained crisis volunteers sent to the area so far. A few of them were dispatched 50 miles away to help minister to people at a temporary evacuation center in Yuba City, alongside some from The Rivers (Yuba City 2 Foursquare Church).
The Paradise congregation is to continue meeting at Life Church, where Senior Pastor Jeff Young has been leading his members’ efforts to meet some of the many needs among those who have been forced into the area. That has included hosting two kids camps for displaced children, giving them a sense of normalcy and providing their parents with time to handle some of their many post-fire needs.
Both Chris and Jeff have paid tribute to the support they have received from FDR, which has included relief ministry advice and funds to help provide emergency supplies. “FDR has been a huge blessing,” says Chris, noting that one unchurched couple to whom he gave gift cards provided by FDR subsequently attended a service. “FDR has been fantastic,” echoes Jeff. “It has been a great partnership.”
That ongoing partnership is likely to include emotional and spiritual care training for Life Church members and other churches in the community, to equip them to support people through what Jay Donnelly says is “a long, healing road ahead.” Many have lost not only their homes and all their possessions, but their livelihoods, too.
A longtime FDR chaplain and 32-year California firefighter, Jay says the fire—which claimed at least 85 lives—is “one of the most significant and devastating incidents I have ever seen; the immensity of the sense of loss is huge, and the church of Jesus has a great opportunity to be a huge part of their healing.”
Life Church plans to help the wider community by opening its campus to host a charter school whose buildings burned down. And with funds from another organization, Life Church is also planning to take on a part-time resource coordinator to help provide information for people trying to deal with housing, insurance, work and other needs.
Among Jeff’s prayer requests is for wisdom, to know which of the many needs Life Church should try to meet. “So far, by the grace of God, we have been really clear on what we are doing and what we are not doing,” he explains. “We’re not going to try to do something we are not good at, and we are not going to be pressured into doing something that won’t bless people.”
At the same time, he is aware that “this is a time when we have to rise up,” he adds. “In the midst of this great devastation, we have this great opportunity, and if we miss the opportunity we are just left with devastation.”
Though some people forced out of the area to find accommodation and work are not likely to return, others are expected to want to try to rebuild, at some stage, says Jay—and that could mean an opportunity for volunteer church teams from outside the area to come to help, in due course.
To help FDR continue to support local churches affected by the fires and respond to ministry opportunities in the impacted communities, go to 4sq.ca/donatefdr and select U.S. Wildfires.