SAN DIEGO- On Monday, Oct. 22, Miles McPherson and his family evacuated their suburban San Diego home in the path of wildfires raging across Southern California. McPherson, senior pastor of The Rock Church, stewed as he drove. Six months before, his congregation had moved into a new facility-a jaw-dropping, state-of-the-art renovation where 11,000 people worship on Sundays. Already, The Rock had deployed volunteers to help fire evacuees. Still, McPherson said, "I felt frustrated and ashamed . . . I thought, 'We've got this huge church and all this stuff going, but we can't help more in the time of our city's greatest need.'"
- Three thousand miles away in Manassas, Va., Denny and Sandy Nissley watched escalating news coverage as more than a dozen wildfires spread across seven Southern California counties. By the evening of Oct. 22, the Nissleys, who head the disaster-relief group Christ in Action, were motoring west in an F-350 pickup, with the makings of a full-scale tent city waiting in the wings.
- Oct. 23, 40 miles northeast of San Diego, Nancy Zadrozny of Ramona, Calif., sent out an email to two members of her church. First responders battling a massive blaze near Ramona had for two days been subsisting on cold food from the local jail, explained Zadrozny, who directs the women's ministry at Mountain View Community Church: "Surely we can do something."
Before the fires, Zadrozny, McPherson, and the Nissleys were strangers. Within five days they had converged on a dirt lot in the mountain farming community of Ramona, teaming to deliver aid to thousands.
Though the media spotlight has dimmed, two fires are still burning in a Southern California disaster where 23 separate blazes torched 517,267 acres and more than 3,000 structures, two-thirds of them homes. According to the state Office of Emergency Services, area coroners reported seven deaths. That total did not include people, some elderly, who later died from fire-related illness.
Hardest hit was San Diego County, where flames devoured entire neighborhoods, ranging from the mansions of wealthy Rancho Santa Fe to humbler homes in areas such as unincorporated Dulzura. Though the post-disaster blame-game has been somewhat in evidence here, another story is emerging: that of faith-based groups locking arms with major disaster relief agencies to provide immediate and long-term relief.
It didn't take long for McPherson to turn his concern into action. The first fire reports in San Diego popped up on Sunday, Oct. 21. By Monday, disaster had bloomed in full. That day, The Rock emailed its entire congregation requesting donations and volunteers. By Tuesday, McPherson had decided to open the church as a shelter. The next day, The Rock was Red Cross--
certified, staffed with 800 volunteers, and had taken in 182 evacuees from a teen group home and an elder-care center. By then, the church also looked like a Super Wal-Mart with relief supplies stacked literally to the rafters. Turning on a dime, the church morphed into a supply distribution center, dispatching donations countywide, ultimately serving 10,000 evacuees at 17 locations, including evacuees at Mountain View Community Church.
The Rock's relief supplies helped Mountain View become the main distribution center for the Ramona area, where about 360 homes burned. Nancy Zadrozny's appeal to "do something" started with five pans of lasagna. That mushroomed into more than 5,000 meals served after Mountain View operations director Michael Raher decided to open the church and fire up the kitchen.
Meanwhile, Christ in Action's 3,000-mile cross-country trek ended on Oct. 26, when it staked its relief site on Mountain View's 12.5-acre property. By Oct. 28, the group had established a full-scale tent city that included a feeding center, showers, a Tide-sponsored laundry facility, an internet café, and an 8,500-square-foot tent brimming with relief supplies.
With Red Cross centers now closing, Christ in Action is providing meals and supplies to about 850 people a day. That has enabled Mountain View to turn its attention to community pastoral care.
The chain of compassion exemplified by The Rock, Mountain View, and Christ in Action stretches across San Diego County. For example, women from Horizon Christian Fellowship are providing free daycare so that burned-out residents can break away to file disaster claims. Rancho Bernardo Community Church is organizing teams of volunteers to clear lots for free. (Hiring a contractor to clear a lot can cost upwards of $25,000.)
Red Cross volunteer Kim Guevara, who is also a member of The Rock, said churches and secular relief agencies have cooperated closely. The Red Cross, for example, "knows what works and what doesn't work and was on the ground instantaneously," she said. "Meanwhile, the faith-based community is engaged, wants to help, and has the ability to tap large numbers of volunteers."
When the Red Cross received from a remote area a request for bottled water, Guevara called The Rock, which immediately dispatched a van. A week later, on a Saturday, The Rock received a request for water containers large enough to care for farm animals. The church called the Red Cross, which cut through red tape and weekend closures to meet the need.
On Nov. 6, several dozen local churches and ministries met to discuss long-term care of fire victims, including a plan for churches to "adopt" individual families and provide close-up recovery care for as long as it takes. Such care will be critical for people like Anita Giannaris, who spoke with WORLD at The Rock's distribution center in central San Diego.
The telephone-alert system that gave many San Diegans time to pack before evacuating didn't work in the Rancho Bernardo neighborhood where the Giannarises rented a home. By the time police with bullhorns ordered the Giannarises out, a wall of flame had reached their street. Giannaris and her husband Steve, 36, a Navy special warfare chief, fled through burning embers, with only enough time to gather their three children and the family dog.
"We lost everything," said Giannaris, 33, tears collecting in her eyes.
The compassion shown by The Rock, and by the Giannaris' own congregation, Canyon Hills Community Church, was a welcome relief from the businesslike and often impersonal aid provided by the larger relief agencies. "As I navigated through FEMA . . . no one ever explained how it all worked. They just shuffled you from one station to another," she said.
Giannaris is grateful for disaster-agency aid, "but more important was the outpouring of support from my church," she said. "People I didn't even know would come up and give me a hug. . . . You can't replace that human connection."
The last time I saw my parents' home standing, I was doing my best to spray their roof with a garden hose. The stream barely reached the rain gutter, so I gave up and retreated to watch the Rice fire stretch its arms around the Fallbrook, Calif., mobile home park where they lived.
Valley Oaks was a haven for retired folks living off pensions and Social Security. As the housing market in Fallbrook boomed, the park was where someone with a fixed income and fading health could live affordably. On Oct. 22, while million-dollar estates burned on Fallbrook's hills, a far more tragic scene unfolded in that valley near the interstate.
During the fire's crescendo at Valley Oaks, only six volunteer firefighters remained to fight back the flames. They kicked over burning fences. They doused embers with garden hoses. Because of their efforts and a shift in wind, half of the park still stands. But when the smoke cleared, more than 100 mobile homes belonging to retired couples and a few young families had been destroyed, turning the charming neighborhood into a surreal landscape of twisted steel.
Four generations of our clan joined the exodus of residents evacuating Fallbrook that day, while I stayed to report on the fire for the local paper. The next morning, I spotted a pile of rubble in place of the home where I spent my last four years before marriage. I then called my sister, who relayed the loss to our parents. My grandparents lost their home in the same park, doubling the fire's impact on our family.
Perhaps what is most difficult about watching loved ones suffer is reconciling their pain with God's sovereignty. I want nothing more than to see my folks spend their balance of years enjoying the beautiful sunset He is painting with the colors of their lives. But they do not seem to share my angst, accepting even this tragedy as another color on His palette.
A week after the fire, I listened as a 21-year-old volunteer fireman who tried to save their house described the chain reaction that day in their small yard. "Your dad had a roll of roofing paper over there," he said, pointing to where the tool shed had been. A burning wooden fence fell on the roofing paper, which lit the shed, which ignited their home, he recalled. Three spaces away, a row of houses mysteriously survived.
"I'm sure they come through here and say, 'Why are those homes still standing, and ours isn't?'" he said quietly.
But they don't. I have stood in the rubble with them several times in recent days, and not once have I seen them cry for themselves, nor heard them envy their neighbors' fortune. The first thing my mom had to say upon seeing the devastation on their block was that the family across the street was uninsured. She cried for them.
It's not that everything is fine. I know now that when fire does its work, the result is so final there may not even be a trinket left to arrange on the new mantle after rebuilding. Fifty years of recipe cards turn to ash in their tin, wedding jewelry melts, and anything not made of steel or stone is reduced to white flakes and dust.
Like many others who lost homes and possessions in the October wildfires, my parents don't know where they will live. Mom only knows she doesn't want to go back to the convenience of a mobile home-"Not if they burn down that quickly."
But if you ask them how they're doing, as two chaplains touring Valley Oaks recently did, they'll smile-even as they sift through the remains of their home-and tell you the fire could not touch what is most important to them: grandchildren, good health, and 40 years of marriage. Hearing them tally the blessings, it becomes clear that God's grace outweighs tragedy, even that of losing a home.
-Tom Pfingsten is a reporter for the North County Times in Fallbrook, Calif.