Editor’s note: Lutheran Disaster Response is working with Lutheran Social Services of Northern California and the Sierra Pacific Synod to respond to the destruction caused by the recent Camp Fire. Please consider donating to help deliver a robust response in addressing the needs of the devastated communities. Gifts designated for “U.S. wildfires” will be used for those affected by wildfires until the response is complete.
Perhaps more than any other time of year, people cherish spending the holidays at their family home and with their congregation. But for many residents of Paradise, Calif., neither were an option this year.
In the wake of the Camp Fire, which started in the town Nov. 8 and has since become the most destructive wildfire in California history, there have been profound struggles for people—but also glimmers of hope along the way.
Paradise is no stranger to fires, said Rod Platte, pastor of Paradise Lutheran Church, and at first it was assumed that the evacuation would be brief. “But it quickly became apparent that this fire was like no other we’d ever experienced,” he said.
“Those who could quickly filled the few roads leading out of Paradise down to Chico [10 miles away]. Virtually all were in shock as we searched for family and friends [there]. … Many had literally only the clothes they were wearing as they drove through tire-melting, burning fallen trees and power lines.”
When Platte was escorted to the church property to retrieve records, he realized that returning to the building would take much longer than initially expected. Paradise’s parsonage, garage and toolsheds had burned to the ground. “As I stood, surrounded by ash and burned trees, it became apparent that we were looking at a year or more before we could even hope to begin to rebuild our devastated town,” he said.
“It quickly became apparent that this fire was like no other we’d ever experienced.”
Over half of the members’ homes were destroyed, and one elderly parishioner died in the fire.
Faith Lutheran in Chico, a sister congregation to Paradise, immediately reached out to Platte. “We were offered shelter, quilts, clothing, food and a place to worship for that Sunday,” he said. Faith’s pastor, Ben Colohan, “found just the right words to assure and demonstrate to us that we were truly not alone in this horror,” Platte said.
Most members of Paradise had never been through such an experience, “so we didn’t know what we needed as we sat among Faith’s members in worship that first Sunday,” Platte said. “But they seemed to know instinctively. They enfolded us into worship.
“Several of Paradise Lutheran’s members cried when they saw me co-presiding with Pastor Ben the second Sunday after the fire. For here was something familiar and comforting and continuing as we sang and worshiped with familiar words, gestures and elements.”
“A reason for hope and joy”
Faith still hosts services for both congregations each Sunday, in addition to offering office space to Paradise. “They’ve been hosting their council meetings and other big meetings here at the church, so we’ve been a spiritual and physical home for them during this time,” said Colter Murphy, director of youth and service at Faith. “Worshiping together has been really important for everyone, in terms of healing and recognizing that that healing is something that’s going to take, for a lot of folks, their whole lives to really sort through.”
Paradise has received gifts of money, gift cards, quilts (one congregation in Auburn, Calif., sent 50), and offers of bedding, food and help to rebuild from across the country. Staff from Lutheran Disaster Response, Lutheran social services and the Sierra Pacific Synod have been in frequent contact and visited to see firsthand what the congregation’s needs are. “Such offers and tangible gifts have demonstrated that God’s people, wherever they might be, do love and do care and do tangibly reach out,” Platte said.
Faith has been working to match offers of temporary housing to those who need it. “A lot of the needs right now are not only for more space, like an apartment or a rental, but also for more long-term [arrangements]. As you might imagine, the housing and rental market in Chico has become really tough,” Murphy said.
“While many doors closed, a few new ones opened—and that is reason for hope and joy.”
With the help of the California furniture company Living Spaces, Faith has also arranged a system for people to receive free, new mattresses. “We’ve been inputting people’s information so they’re registered in the system and can get their free mattress,” Murphy said. “We’ve had over 800 people in our system, with plenty more emails coming in every day.”
Paradise had its own robust community engagement ministries prior to the fire, which members hope to begin again by next Christmas. The congregation had been housing some who had no home or who chose to live in intentional community, Platte said, and they had been planning on opening a 20-unit apartment complex. Now, he said, there is room to expand into a 40-unit facility. “So, while many doors closed, a few new ones opened—and that is reason for hope and joy,” he said.
Murphy agreed: “Lutherans are really good about responding to situations like this. I’ve been blown away. We’ve had people from Alaska, Omaha, the East Coast. Our partner congregation in Rwanda reached out to us, wishing us the best.”
Platte expects that when Paradise returns to its buildings, it will share its spaces with other congregations and denominations who lost their facilities. “It will be in sharing and reaching out to other victims, as we have been helped and encouraged, that our hope and our joy will become reality,” he said.