October 17, 2017
I start this pastoral report with an apology. In yesterday’s report, I forgot to acknowledge Rev. Jola Bortner, pastor of the Rohnert Park UMC where we gathered for the meeting with the Sonoma Circuit. She was our host pastor who reminded us in these strange unsettling days that we are in Autumn. The seasons affirm that we are held by God our Creator who gives us the steadiness of seasons. The conditions left behind by a hot summer are now met by autumn colors and soon, by winter rains.
Pastor Jola thoughtfully led us in our devotions and spoke of how she has reached out to her church members. She systematically went down the list of her members bringing to mind the fact that we Methodists know how to organize in such a way that all of us are connected and accounted for. Over our history as Methodists we have organized in cells, bands and societies. Today we organize in small groups, each group having a leader who watches over the members of the small group. As our congregations have faced the recent fires it would have helped if all our congregations had had a system of small groups to watch over one another.
Today, Rev. Linda Caldwell and I traveled to Ukiah and met with leaders from Ukiah, Willits, Clear Lake, Clear Lake Oaks and Potter Valley. We learned about the impact fires can have on some of our most remote communities. Like in other places, the fires came with crippling speed. There was no public warning. Limited access to cell phone and internet services made communications across the area impossible. People died while trying to escape.
One family attempting to drive away was overtaken by the fires. Their 14- year-old son died. Their 16-year-old daughter had her legs so badly burned that she lost them. Roads were soon closed, isolating these communities. Redwood Valley was where the fires extended their most devastating blow this time, destroying a reported 250 homes and businesses in this small community alone.
Local Pastor Rosemary Landry who is serving our Willits congregation reported that she had become aware of undocumented immigrants who had been affected by the fires in Santa Rosa and who out of fear had escaped to the area we were visiting. They had heard that ICE might be showing up at shelters. ICE has said that they will not be visiting shelters unless there is a criminal reason. The experience of The United Methodist Church has been that ICE’s definition of criminal can be something as small as a traffic violation. How difficult it must be for undocumented immigrants to be escaping from the wrath of fires without the assurance that there are safe places for them to land.
As she worried about how the community of Ukiah would respond to the fires, Pastor Judy Shook realized that the voice of faith communities was missing from the conversation. Meeting with local officials she made an appeal to them to not forget the voice of faith communities. Turning to her the local officials said to her, “You are here. You be the faith community liaison.” We are encouraging her to take authority and lead communities of faith, Christian, Jewish, Buddhist and others, to be engaged in bringing healing and wholeness to this area that is home for families, many of whom have lived there for many generations. We should always be ready to step up into leadership as Pastor Judy has done. Such leadership is a sign of our commitment to social holiness.
Certified Lay Minister, Dawn Roberts, who lived through the Clear Lake fires not that long ago, shared what she and others had done to respond to the needs of a community already struggling with extreme poverty that had suddenly been burned down as well. Her ability to name all the ways our United Methodists with partners like the Mennonite Church have helped the Clear Lake community survive the impact of fires, was a powerful witness of what people of faith, even few in number, can do in times of need.
Rev. Caldwell explained the process that will now come. FEMA, the Red Cross and organizations like our own UMCOR will assess the devastation. But it will be local leaders who will need to determine the long-term response. Our Conference will do everything possible to assist our United Methodists to be involved in helping their communities plan long-term responses and find the necessary resources for these responses.
At each of the places we have visited this week, the one common regret of all our wonderful United Methodist leaders has been that they have not felt prepared for this natural disaster. Our Conference is scheduling disaster response trainings and even attempting to find ways to provide appropriate training for those who are already responding to these most recent fires. I would ask that our Circuits consider being trained together and naming a Circuit disaster response coordinator. In this way, we will be better prepared to watch over not only our congregations but the communities where we serve as well.
As we arrived in Ukiah in the morning we caught a glimpse of the fairgrounds which had been transformed into a staging site for the first responders. Fire trucks, ambulances, Red Cross vehicles and rows of small brightly colored tents where first responders rest filled the fairgrounds. As we left in the afternoon, the fairgrounds were half-full. First responders were out doing their work to contain the fires and save lives. Let us pray for them, that God may sustain them and protect them from all harm.
God is at work through our United Methodist family like our leaders in this area of our Conference. Thanks be to God!
Bishop Minerva G. Carcaño
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