August 18, 2022 | by JB Brayfindley
“I think the fire, especially in the last year and a half, as well as COVID has really pulled our churches together,” states pastor Rebecca Stockdale who serves Portola United Methodist Church and is circuit leader of the High Sierra Circuit. This is the circuit Bishop Minerva G. Carcaño and the episcopal delegation visited last year in the aftermath of the August 2021 Dixie fire. “We took her on the [circuit] trek… It was a long day.”
The circuit straddles three counties, Plumas, Sierra, and Lassen with a two and a half hour drive from the north to the south and an hour drive east to west through the Sierra Nevada mountains. “In the winter, you’ll be lucky if the road’s open due to snow or the constant work still being done because of the fire,” explains Stockdale. The drive to any one church is not straight. The overall shape of the circuit is more of an amoeba type explains Stockdale. Portola UMC is located nearest the center of the circuit and if there is an in person circuit meeting, it is held there or 35 miles west at Quincy UMC. Susanville is the most northern church with Chester to the west on the other side of Greenville UMC, which burned to the ground. Taylorsville is a few miles south of Greenville. Downieville and Sierra City UMCs are the southernmost churches.
“As mountain communities, even though there is distance, it’s amazing how many of us know one another…” states Stockdale. “We straddle county lines [but] what we really all have in common is that we are all smaller rural mountain churches—and we have tremendous hearts.”
Despite the miles between each church, when the city of Greenville burned down, the circuit was strategic in caring for the many people in crisis. “That’s what pulled our circuit together is [determining] how can we best serve these communities that are in dire, dire need ...”
The first weekend in August marked the one year anniversary of the Dixie Fire and the circuit participated in a recent Interfaith Day of Remembrance. A song about the event written by Alicia King Marshall who is from Greenville but now resides in Nashville, and who showed up to sing it this year for Gold Digger Days in Greenville.
Stockdale recalls interactions with the circuit churches during the crisis. “We were talking everyday… how to get gift cards distributed… feeding people—in Quincy, Portola and Susanville we had a fire camps for all the firefighters and support personnel, we had 5 Red Cross Shelters, we had tents and RVS in all of our driveways and church grounds… we were working on rides to Reno… delivering meds… and here at the church, we have fiber and I turned the routers out so people could drive up and access the internet--recharging phone and getting internet access was a big deal,” Stockdale went on to note that the circuit churches worked closely with county services. Also, with the California-Nevada Annual conference, they created a visa card with their own branding “so people knew who it was from.”
During COVID, the circuit focused on setting up online worship and zoom meetings including joint Bible and book studies. Before COVID the circuit sponsored musical events together including combined choir performances. Currently, they are working on setting up a joint confirmation class because “none of us have enough kids for one whole class.”
At least twice a year the circuit meets in person but otherwise meet on zoom or over the phone. This year they met in July to welcome and introduce the new pastor at Quincy, Cathy Love.
Because of the beautiful location of the churches, many communities are destination spots for winter sporting or summer activities and are home to ‘snowbirds’ who only reside in the area seasonally. Portola serves as a bedroom community for Reno, Nevada with people working in Reno and living in Portola.
Greenville UMC is closed. “We don’t currently have a pastor up there but as a circuit we’re supporting it,” states Stockdale.
“Portola UMC is a Reconciled church,” states current pastor Rebecca Stockdale adding that Quincy and Susanville UMCs are currently engaged in the process of becoming Reconciling Congregations. “I say that because I think there is this ongoing belief that I often hear—oh, yeah, yeah, you’re up in conservative parts of California—and we certainly have pockets of that but that’s everywhere and really, after covid, our culture has been shifting… especially in the communities like Susanville, Quincy and Portola.”
“Portola has been going through a resurrection,” states Stockdale reviewing the many building projects completed over the last few years including updating electronics. “Many of the new folks that have come in are either LGBTQ themselves or their kids or grandkids are…I hear this a lot, “I want a church where when my kids come here for Christmas, I can bring them, and they’ll be welcome.”
Pastor Charles White serves Susanville UMC with an outward focus on service including sponsoring the Hope Food Bank and reaching out to the LGBTQ community. In 2024, Susanville will be closing one of the main prisons there and the church anticipates addressing the changes.
Chester UMC is a smaller ‘snowbird’ congregation pastored by Mele Vakapuna. Before COVID, the church was known for hosting musical events in the community.
Quincy UMC is a community oriented church regularly serving community suppers and during COVID continued by adapting to “take out” dinners. Their new pastor Catherine Love and congregation are determining their future focus.
Karen Watson pastors Taylorsville UMC which was turned into a resource center for the fire and has focused on that this year. The community, surrounded by the fire but not burned, bonded together and the church has grown with four baptisms and more than six people joining the church.
Sierra City and Downieville UMC is pastored by Jaime Rogers are both old, historic churches. Sierra-City UMC sits “right on the Pacific Crest Trail and people go right by it when they come down to town,” notes Stockdale. “There are people who come off the trail and come to church from time to time.” The church is community oriented and hosts a Christmas program for all the kids in the area. “Pretty much anyone who is Christian—that is your church.” Most housing in the area is vacation rentals by owners (VRBO), ‘snow birds’ often attend services.