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Baptism by fire

National | WILDFIRES: Southern California churches add a little "shoe leather" to their faith by pitching in to help disaster victims

Issue: "Soldiers in harm’s way," Nov. 15, 2003

A week after the worst wildfires in California history savaged the southern third of the state, a different kind of "fire bucket brigade" appeared in the remote hills of eastern San Diego County. Two hundred volunteers from Skyline Wesleyan Church on Nov. 2 lined up in Harbison Canyon to shuttle relief supplies into tents erected by the Marines.

They heaved hundreds of boxes, baskets, and bags filled with donated toothpaste, batteries, shampoo, diapers, dust masks, soap, used clothing, food, and drinking water. Within hours, the band of local Christian relief workers had built a sundries depot, a commissary, a food court, and a wellness station. The makeshift community center, which includes a tent chapel, now serves as a half-acre of hope amid miles of blackened rubble and ash.

Hundreds of local churches are working alongside disaster-relief agencies such as FEMA and the Red Cross in San Diego, the area hardest hit by fires that killed 22 people, scorched 746,000 acres, and destroyed 3,587 homes, most of them here. But most congregations, nestled as they are in a sunny vacation city, have never faced a disaster like this.

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"We're all learning as we go," Skyline senior pastor Jim Garlow told a group of about 100 pastors who gathered at Skyline on Nov 4. "We're learning a new type of ministry." The meeting, spearheaded by the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association's Rapid Response Team (RRT), was designed to help area ministers mobilize their congregations. RRT and the disaster-relief group "We Care Ministries" are working with churches to train volunteers on how to demonstrate compassion through the phases of crisis-what to say, what not to say, and how to care for victims practically and spiritually.

Debra Conn needs such care: A widow who last year survived breast cancer, Mrs. Conn last week lost her home of 30 years to the fire that raged through Harbison Canyon. She told WORLD she never heard the fire evacuation order issued on Oct. 26 after the Cedar Fire, the worst of those ravaging the state, swept into the hills near her home. But after friends warned her by telephone, Mrs. Conn grabbed a few valuables and fled before flames overran her property. On Nov. 4, she visited Skyline's sundries tent, picking out free toiletries and supplies she'll use while staying with a friend. "I get teary-eyed when I think how much everybody's helped," she said, eyes welling. "That gets to me more than the fire."

Churches are reaching fire victims in innovative ways. Teams from Skyline Wesleyan are working their way through San Diego's loneliest canyons-some of which had no emergency services available during the fires-to locate and deliver aid to victims who are as yet unknown to traditional relief agencies. Horizon Christian Fellowship, a large nondenominational church, is raising money to help more than 20 firefighters and police officers whose homes burned.

Emmanuel Faith Community Church in Escondido, Calif., served as a major evacuation center, then as a donation site. Now church leaders are assessing needs in the community-a task chief operating officer Ken Frizzell said is challenging. The church has built a "call list" from its 15,000-member database; volunteers will match addresses with burn areas, then telephone affected families to offer help.

Mr. Frizzell expects that to be a difficult task in a city that "runs on answering machines." It will be even more difficult, he says, to assess needs that run deeper than material loss. Meanwhile, the wildfires have forced some leaders at Emmanuel Faith to admit its shortcomings. "This church has for a long time considered itself a 'teaching center,' where the primary mission was to be sure we properly taught the Word of God," Mr. Frizzell said. The fires "have taught us that ... we needed to put shoe leather to our faith."

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