Visiting Napa and Novato
October 18, 2017
Brothers and Sisters,
Today was another very meaningful day. United Methodists from our beloved California-Nevada Conference continue to amaze me with their faithfulness. Rev. Linda Caldwell and I traveled to Napa where we met with clergy and lay leaders from our churches in Napa, St. Helena, and Vallejo. We learned new things about the impact of the fires.
Our youngest participant at any of our pastoral itineration visits this week was little Adeline who with her friends had made “Thank You” posters for first responders and then delivered them. Schools are closed at this time in the communities where the fires have hit. Adeline’s grandmother told us that Monterey Bay Aquarium is providing free entry for children in fire affected communities. Children have been greatly affected by the fires and we all agreed that our churches need to be considering ways to continue ministering to them.
One mother in the circle reported that social media had kept her 12-yr-old daughter on top of the news of the fires. One of the problems, however, was that rumors were soon just as prevalent as real news. It made them all anxious so this 12-yr-old and her friends started the “12-yr-old Fire Therapy Group”!
This same young girl told her mother that she was praying to God to stop the fires, but there was nothing she could do. Her very wise mother invited five of her daughter’s friends to their home where they talked about what they were experiencing and, like little Adeline, made thank you notes for firefighters and also delivered them.
A faithful youth ministry director has been reaching out to the young people under his care with a watchful eye. Every generation responds differently. Where we find ourselves in the cycle of life, shapes our response. Some elderly persons have given up in the face of this most recent natural disaster. Some knew they could not physically run to safety. Others could not help their spouse move quickly enough and could not leave them behind. Young people can run, but not always fast enough as we learned yesterday. The young people we heard about today want to be engaged in responding to the needs around them. They have the need to work out their emotions by being active.
Our church in Napa had recently declared itself as a Sanctuary Church. I don’t think they had fire victims in mind when they took this bold step, but their spirit of serving the most vulnerable under all circumstances makes them a wonderfully hospitable community of faith. This church experienced an earthquake not long ago that nearly brought their church building down. They were engaged in the recovery in that natural disaster and are committed now to being leaders in this most recent disaster.
They remember that in the earthquake recovery the truly poorest in the community were forgotten. They stand ready to be even stronger advocates for the poor this time around. They are also recognizing the urgency of being engaged in housing for those who had no adequate housing before the fires and now have even less possibility of housing. Led by their pastor, Rev. Lee Neish, they are aligning their resources with their vision.
Pastor Lee also told us the story of the Global Supertanker Boeing 747-400 plane that has been helping to extinguish the fires. The plane is called, Spirit of John Muir. A great-great grandson of John Muir, an early advocate for the preservation of wilderness in the U.S., had told Pastor Lee that a few years ago he had been asked for permission to name the Boeing 747-400, Spirit of John Muir. He was informed at that time that the plane would be used to protect the wilderness. As the fires raged last week, this great-great grandson saw the Spirit of John Muir at work extinguishing the fires right there in the Napa area and felt grateful pride.
Rev. Allen Yan-Chamberlin, Pastor of Vallejo Fellowship UMC, shared that when the fires began, her phone started to ring. Her church members were calling with one message. “Pastor, we need to pray,” they each said, call after call. She smiled as she said to us, “We believe in the power of prayer, but does it take a fire to fire-up the church?!” Sometimes crisis leads us to deepen our prayer life. I believe that our prayers have made a difference in a hundred ways in this crisis. If nothing else, I believe prayers have opened our hearts to greater love, sacrificial compassion, and bolder discipleship.
Our pastor of Wayside UMC in Vallejo, Rev. Fel Cao, informed us that his church leaders had been concerned about the poor and undocumented immigrants. They visited shelters and found many in the parking lots staying in their cars out of fear that they might not be received at the shelters because of the lack of documentation or that they might even be detained by ICE. I am sure that these leaders were a great comfort to those excluded from basic care.
Rev. Cao and his family also took in a church family who had to be evacuated. They had called him and asked whether they could stay at the church. Instead he welcomed them into his home and personally prepared a special meal for them. There are so many ways we can pastor our flock and this was a kind and generous way.
From both our Napa and our St. Helena UMCs we learned that many in these communities are suffering from survivor’s guilt. Why they were spared is a troubling question for them. They feel guilty that they are experiencing trauma and depression even though they were not touched by the fires. Others are experiencing a clear sense of priority. Some have lost everything but are clear that nothing material they had, was what was most important in their lives. Pastor Burke Owens, who leads our church in St. Helena has been ministering to those feeling survivor’s guilt and experiencing depression. We encouraged him to consider how others of us might help him in this ministry of care.
From Napa we traveled to Novato to our UMC there. We met with a wonderful group of volunteers who had stepped up immediately to respond. Just a few hours after the fires began in Santa Rosa, they placed evacuation shelter signs on the street side of their church building for all to see, and opened the doors of the church to shelter those being evacuated. Very soon even though no evacuees had come, the manager of the Mexican restaurant down the street came by and offered to provide lunch for the evacuees. Pastor Youngmi Jung and church members who were at the church to serve evacuees, thanked the person who had come offering lunch but had to share with him that they had no evacuees at that time. That restaurant manager told them that evacuees were gathering at the local Target.
Pastor Youngmi and one of the church members drove to the Target with their sign and directed evacuees to Novato UMC. Before long everyone in Novato knew about the shelter at Novato UMC. The Novato Mother’s Club brought food and pastries, as did the Mexican restaurant that had sent their first visitor. A Greek Orthodox Church had also brought a delicious meal. One night, a man obviously tired from work had brought a baby play pen. They did not need a baby play pen, but the man seemed so earnest that they took it any way. Strangers sent water, baby diapers, socks and underwear for all ages. They also received many volunteers including 2 nurses, and a visit from the Red Cross who apologized for not having come by to help them earlier.
A young woman in her early 20s came by one day to volunteer, but they had enough volunteers and told her that they could not work her in. They were taken aback when the young woman began to cry uncontrollably. She so wanted to help. I am praying for this young woman. God knows what heavy burden she was carrying that led her to weep when there was no place for her service. Pray with me for this young woman and for Mother Liz.
Liz is from Napa but was in Los Angeles when the fires began. One of her daughters was at the concert in Las Vegas, Nevada where the deadly shooting occurred recently. The people on each side of her were shot to death. Liz had gone to check on her daughter’s well-being. This daughter is dealing with her trauma. Back here in Northern California Liz has a daughter who is a journalist and who is running toward the fires to report on them. Liz has asked this daughter to daily send her a quick text and tell her that she is alright. As the mother of a daughter, I feel for Liz. Please pray for her with me, and for all mothers and fathers whose children are being affected in one or another by disasters of the kind we are living today.
The first evacuees to come to Novato UMC were an extended family of about 35 people! Others followed them. As the church fellowship hall filled up, one church member described the scene: The elderly sat on the edges with a forlorn look. Younger adults paced the floor. But the children and young people played and ate and made themselves at home. Pastor Youngmi had the great idea of setting up a ping-pong table that became a big hit. Neighbors had brought toys and other things for the children to entertain themselves with. They were all given out to the delight of the children.
Even animals were given shelter. One woman called asking whether pets were being sheltered at the church. She was told they were and she came. What no one expected was that she would come with 10 pets! When the Humane Society heard that the church was sheltering pets, they brought them animal crates and cat and dog food. They will forever remember the fellow who came strolling up with bags of cat and dog food thrown over his shoulders. He had paw tattoos running up one of his arm. A true animal lover!
Our church members at Novato UMC have said good-bye to those they provided shelter for. Some of the children didn’t want to go. They had felt safe at the church. One undocumented immigrant father who had come to the church with his teenage daughter had said to them that he wanted to come back to the church. These church leaders affirmed that they had all become family. They are now distributing the extra supplies to other ministries that serve the poor and the homeless and asking, “What else can we do?”
We ended the day on an hour-long conference call with Cathy Earl of UMCOR who said our church leaders were doing all the right things. She offered the full on-going support of UMCOR. This week UMCOR has authorized an initial $10,000 grant for the work of our churches affected by these recent fires. Further response efforts are being planned by the leaders of our churches on the front line. We will do all we can to assist them with the necessary resources and support they will need to continue serving.
My heart overflows with gratitude to God for all these faithful leaders who aren’t just talking about being the church. THEY ARE BEING THE CHURCH! Thanks be to God!
Bishop Minerva G. Carcaño