October 16, 2017
Sisters and Brothers,
I pray this has been a blessed Autumn day for you. As Rev. Linda Caldwell and I drove up to Rohnert Park to visit with pastors and leaders of the Sonoma Circuit, we saw beautiful trees with their changing colors, rolling beige hills, and grazing animals. Soon enough though, we began to see the blackened earth where fires had burned the land.
The smoke that had gotten caught in our throats on Sunday in Santa Rosa, again became evident as we began to cough and our heads began to hurt. We felt badly for those who would not be able to leave the fire-affected area at the end of the day. It all brought back memories of the men and women wearing masks further north to protect their lungs, and the story of a truck driver who had stopped and offered a man walking his dog and wearing an inferior mask, a new and better mask. I also remembered the ashes that collected on the window edge of Linda’s vehicle in Santa Rosa, and the story of 110 fires.
A lay leader from Santa Rosa told me that at one point last week there had been 110 fires, an enormous number caused by high winds. He had pictures of pieces of bark, leaves, and even a glove. Like charred land they were black, but as one looked closely you could see a bit of red. They had become the flying embers that had multiplied the deadly fires.
Today we met with about 20 leaders from the Sonoma Circuit who shared their stories of evacuations, fear and a deep desire to serve others. We learned that 80% of our Sonoma church had evacuated. On Sunday morning those who had gathered for worship had looked around and realized that only the poor had stayed. Poverty is a sure deterrent to being able to easily move out of the way of the danger of natural disasters.
Other leaders commented about not feeling prepared. One couple from Petaluma shared they had an old earthquake survival kit. They took it out, brushed it off and replaced the expired canned food, but knew that it was probably not the appropriate survival kit for fires. With others from their church, they have been helping at the shelter at the local high school. They are organizing donations and keeping things in order. They are also lifting up the concern that our churches are not prepared for such disasters and we need to be, in order to care for our churches and our communities.
Pastor Lunisi Tovo from our church in Sebastopol has also been helping at the shelter in her community. While serving she quickly realized that there were many children who were receiving little supervision. Her Safe Sanctuary training kicked in and she began to focus her attention on the safety of the children. Claiming safe space in the tradition of so many stories in scripture, she had gone to ever corner of the shelter and prayed for the safety of the children and their families. Pastor Laurie McHugh of Windsor UMC has been caring for the elderly in her community. She was preparing to attend a workshop on ridding the body of the toxins of fire smoke and made the commitment to share what she learned with everyone present.
One lay woman talked about a friend who had been in the line of the fires and was rescued. She spoke of her friend as a bright woman with great gifts of organization and detail. But, by the time she saw her after her rescue, her friend was not tracking well. Her memory and understanding had been compromised. The hope is that the trauma of the fires will fade and her memory and understanding will return.
Several persons in the circle spoke of not knowing what to do other than to listen to the stories of those most affected by the fires. We affirmed the importance of allowing persons to share their tragic experiences and the gift that a kind listening ear can be. A social worker among us reminded us to hear the stories but to not take them home with us because it would soon make us ill and unable to help others. It was a good reminder to release all these stories, hurts and pains, to God at the end of the day.
Rev. Monique-Cheri Pierre, pastor in Forestville shared that a local restaurant had immediately begun to serve meals for first responders and others. Before long it had served 4,000 meals and then needed to recruit others to help. It turned to our UMC in town because it is known for its service. Forestville UMC has become a food preparation center for the hungry and hurting.
Rev. Eric Dale, pastor in Petaluma is guiding a conversation about what the church will do to continue to serve in this time of need. His lay leaders are committed to figuring out the next steps. An experienced first responder among us reminded us to stay calm, be patient, and be organized in our response following the guide of those who are responsible for leading the recovery.
Others in the circle remembered that we need to serve the homeless populations in these afflicted communities as they deal with this traumatic situation from an already difficult place. One long-term resident of Sonoma also expressed concern for the housing crisis across CA. The lack of adequate housing in Northern California has long been a problem and with Santa Rosa alone losing 5% of its housing in last week’s fires, this problem has just worsened.
A review of our conference disaster response steps led by Rev. Linda Caldwell helped us begin to consider our further responses. She helped us see that there are immediate needs and then there is the long-term recovery. She reminded us that United Methodists are known for arriving early in times of disaster and being the last to leave.
Rev. Matthew Pearson, pastor of Sonoma UMC, and the Sonoma Circuit Leader, invited us to end our gathering and Christian conferencing with a song of faith. He then led us in the singing of Great is Thy Faithfulness. The conviction of his voice encouraged us all. In prayer we asked for God’s healing touch upon the afflicted and the anointing of God’s Holy Spirit upon those serving.
God bless all our churches and communities in the Sonoma Circuit.
Bishop Minerva G. Carcaño
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