Recovering from fires in Santa Rosa, part II

KENT COVINGTON, HOST: Today is Wednesday, June 20th. Thank you for turning to WORLD Radio to help start your day.

Good morning. I’m Kent Covington.

MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard. Up next: Churches coming together after tragedy. 

Last fall, devastating fires burned their way through Santa Rosa, California and nearby wine country. Entire subdivisions were consumed in flames and thousands of families displaced.

Today, part two of our Santa Rosa fire story: Christians as the hands and feet of Jesus throughout the recovery process.

WORLD Radio’s Sarah Schweinsberg has our story.

SARAH SCHWEINSBERG, REPORTER: Adam Peacocke loads a box of colorful canvas bags into the back of his car. The bags contain beach towels, bubbles, and sidewalk chalk. He and Dustin Gallup, a local pastor, are delivering them to a nearby elementary school in Santa Rosa.

PEACOCKE: We’ll be delivering these summer gift bags to roughly 20 different schools, so that kind of shows the geographical spread of the fires.

The bags are going to elementary students whose families lost their homes in the wildfires last fall.

AUDIO: Sound of outdoors, sound of hallway

Inside the school, Peacocke sets the box down in the front office. Gallup, a pastor at Santa Rosa Christian Church, tells the principal about the bags and offers future help.

GALLUP: Whatever we can do to help you guys with the victims and stuff—if you need anything, let us know.

Over the past eight months, local churches have made dozens of bag drops. It’s a small way to help. But they’ve also been doing bigger things—like finding families permanent housing. Pastors have provided spiritual and mental health assistance, along with material aid.

PEACOCKE: We’ve never functioned together the way that we are now.

The fires actually helped accomplished something that Adam Peacocke had been praying about—bringing local churches together. At the first meeting to plan a united church response…

PEACOCKE: We had over 60 people show up to that meeting, over 40 churches represented, and it was off to the races.

The coalition calls itself Sonoma County Churches United Relief. In the months after the fire, pastors and other church leaders met weekly to pray and share information. Sometimes public officials came. They gave pastors information to help their congregations.

PEACOCKE: We had probably over 400 households in our local churches destroyed in the fires….so many of the members are still trying to find out what’s going on, what are the resources, and so a pastor who can talk directly to a leader from FEMA, directly to a county leader, can ask questions.

Some churches became temporary shelters. Others became donation drop-off points. They communicated through a private Facebook page and shared Google Doc files.

PEACOCKE: So someone would post, ‘hey, here’s some information, here’s a need,’ and people would comment and link up, and that was super helpful.

Donations flooded in. But that caused other problems.

PEACOCKE: There was a group that wanted to donate a thousand bikes, but where are you going to store a thousand bikes?

So they turned to the Redwood Gospel Mission. It agreed to store bikes, canned goods, clothes, and other donated items. … Jeff Gilman is Redwood’s director. His organization provided one other crucial piece of help: Figuring out who was in need from those trying to take advantage of the fires.

GILMAN: There were people who were expressing that they were victims that were in need, but they weren’t in need of fire help.

The mission connected fire victims with a church program called Foster-a-Family. It pairs fire victims with church families that can provide long-term material and relational support. 50 families are still engaged in the program.  

Churches have given other families grants to help with replacing possessions… families like Chris Key’s.

KEYS: Right away we got everything we needed as far as food and toiletries and stuff to get by.

Keys says as he thinks about the stress of rebuilding… his most pressing needs are spiritual and emotional. A church agreed to pay for a weekend retreat for Keys and his wife.

KEYS: We’re dealing with a 5-year-old boy with autism and two other kids with lots of challenges. And so just being able to focus on our marriage for even an hour or two was huge for us.

The churches are still working to connect with other hurting people.

PEACOCKE: So we are just pulling up to what many refer to as the FEMA village.

Rows of white campers fill the county fairgrounds R-V lot. Those who live here are still looking for permanent housing.

Once a week church volunteers distribute bottled water here. They visit with residents like Charlie Brown. He is an elderly man whose trailer burned in the fire.

BROWN: In less than 30 minutes you saw 140 homes destroyed.

Once FEMA leaves in a few months, this camper village will be dissolved. That’s when people like Brown will need even more help. He says he knows who he can contact.

BROWN: All the churches have been great. Uh, because they, they, besides water is, they come out and they talked to you, you know, they just don’t drop off a case of water. They talked to you. Do you have other needs? Do you have a mental, spiritual needs? They spend time, and that’s, that makes as much difference as the water does.

After almost nine months, some churches have stopped being involved. Fewer pastors come to meetings, even though the meetings happen less frequently. So Adam Peacocke finds himself needing a new message.

PEACOCKE: Part of the message that we’re trying to communicate with others is that the fires may have been out for a long time, but the recovery processes is still really tough, and we’ve got a long road ahead of us.

Peacocke says he hopes the fires will continue to be a wake-up call for the local church…. A call to get out into the community and a reminder that fellow believers are a great resource.

PEACOCKE:  My hope is that we’ll be in vision beyond just disaster recovery into what it looks like for us to be more united and more coordinated in the way that we express the love of Christ here in Santa Rosa in Sonoma County.

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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