When Arnold Schwarzenegger comes to your hometown, you know you have it going. Or not. The Terminator was speaking at the shopping strip across from our church. In his raspy man-of-hour voice, he assured that help was on its way. His sunburned face grimaced across the celluloid screen and then our church came on.
Amidst sounds of siren and smoke spiraling in the background, we spotted our facilities manager on TV too!
“I rushed here at six in the morning and tried to pull out whatever records I could but I knew it’s a little too late,” Bill Griffith was grim under his baseball cap.
We watched in horror as footage of our church burning unfurled like a scene from Backdraft. Flames licked the shrubs leading to the upper campus and the now exposed huge stones gawked, awkward like one suddenly stripped naked.
We were among the half a million people fleeing the firestorm that broke out at Witch Creek the day before. As strong dry Santa Ana winds fanned the fire at 85 mph, torching one area after another, causing some 18 fires at the same time, we were helpless as we saw the community near our church on fire too. We had barely escaped and had driven 30 miles to hide in a hotel while the fires raged on and one and on and the whole of San Diego smoked like a sprawling out of control inferno.
October 22nd 2007 will long be remembered. The fires consumed some 1,400 homes, with 340 just miles within our church radius. Thousands of people slept in the stadium, others in hotels or schools. Neighborhoods resembled war zones with lingering embers and rubble where houses once stood. Quite a few were left with gaping structures, cavernous and eerie.
When we could finally go home, a group of us from the church went to survey the damage. A huge black gaping hole opened the sanctuary to the still grey sky and inside, debris covered the sanctuary, everything destroyed but a lone cross. It would take a year before the sanctuary could be used again.
While we were there, we learned that the pastoral staff had plans to set up a relief center for the badly damaged neighborhood across the street. Volunteers would be needed the very next day as people would be trickling in to survey their own houses. We volunteered ourselves, our children included.
The next day, amidst the smoky atmosphere, we set up shop while the cleaning crew generated more than cleanliness with their loud washing equipment. A big sign outside beamed: Water + Rest + Food + Cleaning Supplies + Child Care. In the midst of soot, ash, noise and teeming people walking here and there, organization was slowly taking shape. The youths donned their masks and their yellow volunteer shirts and were taken in groups of four to various surviving houses to help clean up. Ladies took charge of food, water, queries and offered listening ears to displaced people who lost homes and a lifetime of memories. Confusion meet compassion and produce a pyramid of strength and comfort in California’s worst fire history.
Come the first Sunday, the news crew descended to see how a burnt church was coping with its losses. Even though some members had lost homes, running from the fire with nothing other than the pajamas, there was no bitterness in the air, even if it’s acrid from the smoke. As the reporters mingled with the larger than usual crowd, tales of faith and trust rose higher than the smoke, still smoldering in the distance. As worshippers gathered in the much smaller lower campus, where the fire had not gouged the pulpit, our pastor rose to give his sermon. Peter and his faith in the midst of turbulent waters.
Faith that grows arms of love, reaching out to the community. Faith that forgets its own pain so it can salve someone else‘s . Faith that reaches out to offer a cup, a hand, a shoulder, even an ear. Evangelism in motion, without tracts and the carefully worded salvation plan. Love of Jesus becomes a banner, a visual peopled by ambassadors of love. Bold and inviting. Irresistible. Undeniable.
No wonder one of the media people who came asked to receive the Lord that day. Who can resist such great outpouring of faith and love.? Brought about by a fire. Beauty for ashes.
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