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From “building” to blessing: The Rock became a shelter and major supply distribution center for wildfire victims.

Tested by fire

Disaster | How churches and relief groups are turning five pans of lasagna into truckloads of food and care for California victims

Issue: "Reinventing Hillary," Nov. 17, 2007

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.

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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."

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