Disaster strikes unexpectedly, disrupting daily life and displacing families. Sometimes, a disaster meets a pre-existing social condition; compounding the fall-out, and making an already complicated issue even more difficult.
That is exactly what happened with the deadly wildfire--also known as Camp Fire--that recently affected the Butte County area. “I hate that they called it the ‘Camp Fire,” Pastor Kearns notes. “I’ve been involved in outdoor ministry for decades. In my mind, camp fire is a happy place, not a disaster.”
According to Pastor Kearns, the community of Chico and the county as a whole were already facing a housing shortage before the fires occurred. In fact, the situation had gotten so bad that the City Council was preparing to declare a housing crisis, due to the lack of affordable, available housing.
Once the wildfires descended on the surrounding area, many more residents were displaced. While the community extended an immediate outpouring of compassion and mercy in the wake of the fire, the matter of housing grew even more complicated. As the early weeks of recovery wore on, tensions rose.
“Displacement from the disaster was complicated by the pre-existing housing crisis,” said Pastor Kearns. “It makes something that was already hard a whole lot harder. It’s difficult to not classify people and ascribe worth to them based on whether they were people who lost homes in fire, or whether they were homeless before; or were displaced because of greedy landlords that want to capitalize on disaster. Who are the victims? Everybody. Everyone is feeling the impact of this fire whether they are in the burn zone or not.”
And then the rains came.
Two weeks before Christmas, torrential rains finally extinguished the fires that had done so much damage. But that also meant flooding in areas where displaced people were camping in tents. Those fields had to be cleared leaving many, yet again, with no place to go.
First Christian Church, Chico, was prepared. As a designated Red Cross disaster shelter, the congregation had been ready to open their doors to those in need of shelter back when the fires began. While their space was not needed immediately for that purpose, the church was called on to open their door to their neighbors who now needed shelter from rain and flooding.
In spite of the unique challenges present in this disaster, outside relief workers (such as FEMA personnel) have noted that this small town in California seems more resilient than most. Pastor Kearns attributes that resilience to an already close knit community. Churches and other organizations were better prepared to serve neighbors in an emergency, because they already had strong relationships.
An ecumenical group of congregations formed an alliance to meet immediate needs. Each of those churches initially received support from their respective denominations’ disaster relief funds. A gathering of Buddhists contributed to this work as well, making it an interfaith effort.
First Christian Church received solidarity grants from Week of Compassion to help them in serving their neighbors immediately after the fire. In addition to meeting practical, physical needs, these churches joined efforts to host an interfaith service of hope and healing. And now, with long-term recovery work underway, several of those congregations are preparing to provide grief support groups to those affected by the fire. Week of Compassion is partnering with FCC to help provide this crucial ministry.
Meanwhile, several FCC families are among those displaced by the fires. And their neighbors to the north--First Christian Church, Paradise-- still can’t occupy their building because of damage in the area; and the majority of families from that church have been displaced as well. So First Christian, Chico has opened its doors to provide sanctuary to this neighboring congregation. They recognize the importance of being together with church family in this difficult time, and have made it part of their mission to extend that hospitality.
As with any major disaster, the work of recovery and rebuilding is ongoing. Even with many good efforts underway, funding is critical for these programs to continue. While the community and local partners prepare the infrastructure to receive volunteers for rebuilding, for now the best practice of “Stay, Pray, Give” applies for those who wish to provide meaningful support.
Like Pastor Kearns said: everyone is feeling the impact of this fire, whether they are in the burn zone or not. That is the nature of community--and that is also the nature of the body of Christ. Where one part suffers, all parts suffer; and where one part finds hope and new life, the many parts receive hope and new life. With the wide range of needs resulting from this tragedy-- from the complex housing situation to the ongoing need for emotional and spiritual care--your gifts to Week of Compassion give hope and new life in more ways than we can imagine.