Before the Camp Fire and now, one year later

Before the Camp Fire and now, one year later

The memorial that stands at Magalia Community Church, unveiled at the one-year commemoration of the Camp Fire.

By Sophie Carrick, Communications Coordinator

Although the Camp Fire no longer burns, its ashes still remain. This is evident in all those impacted by the fire and for our congregations involved in Camp Fire recovery, whose communities are forever changed. Our congregation at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Chico has taken the reigns in helping those in their community through disaster recovery, whether its connecting people in the community to disaster case management through FEMA or by sending out its deacons to take care of those who are hurting.  

The Very Rev. Richard Yale, Rector at St. John’s, Chico, shared that the church was very engaged in community outreach before the fire, just in a different way.

Rev. Richard shared this metaphor: “There’s a scene in the 1962 World War II movie, The Longest Day, where troops have been dropped on the wrong beach on D-Day. They’re led by Teddy Roosevelt Jr, a general. They’re sitting in a foxhole on the wrong beach and looking at the map, and they’re concerned. All that they have planned for, all the terrain, all the tactical objectives they had – everything was different than what they had been preparing for.

One of the colonels says, ‘Teddy, the reinforcements and our supplies are going to wind up on the other beach, the right beach, and we’re here. And he says, ‘Well then, the reinforcements and supplies will have to follow us. We’re starting the war from here.’”

As Rev. Richard shared, St. John’s thought they were prepared for a different beach. Two months before the Camp fire, the congregation was flourishing – they celebrated the success of their Jesus Center farm project, blessed their new community prayer garden and had just refinished the church building.  

“All of this great stuff, and then on Nov. 8, we woke up on the wrong beach,” said Rev. Yale, and the congregation had to completely shift gears on how to carry out their mission.

 “The mission has always been to proclaim and to embody the good news of God’s reign in the world and to be engaged in our community so human flourishing will come to light, knowing that Christ is at work in the world, and we are invited to go participate in that. And we have been, but the terrain was rather easy, and I don’t think it stretched us as much.

We got out and moved beyond our comfort zone, engaging people in great trauma, hurt, and brokenness, some in our own congregation and also at St. Nick’s, Paradise. It was a strange territory, but we were empowered to engage,” said Rev. Richard.

And engage is exactly what they did: St. John’s established the Long-Term Recovery Group, including the Spiritual and Emotional Wellness group, which meets every Friday morning at the church. In addition, partnerships were made with the various impacted cities surrounding Paradise such as Magalia, Yankee Hill and Stirling City.

The Rev. Lew Powell and the Rev. Anne Powell, deacons at St. John’s, were sent out to care for those in the community in various ways. Rev. Lew was activated as a crisis counselor for those in Stirling City and was a key player in the major partnership established with Magalia Community Church. St. John’s now regularly sends volunteers to help with the commodity distribution center at Magalia Community Church, which packs and disperses packages of food every Thursday.

Part of where God is very present for Rev. Lew is in the interfaith relationships that have formed, like with Magalia Community Church, which is a nondenominal church and with whom St. John’s has a “loving and binding relationship under Christ.” St. John’s has also developed a partnership with the people of the Buddhist Tzu Chi Foundation, who also volunteer at the Magalia church.

Rev. Richard with Sandy Swanson, one of the many volunteers from St. John's. On a recent distribution day at the Magalia Community Church, volunteers handed out winter clothing. Rev. Richard was present as an emotional caregiver.

Rev. Lew on distribution day at Magalia Community Church, giving instructions to volunteers.

“The catastrophes that have happened have just shown me there is a continuing need for God’s presence in all that we do. There really is no separation from being involved in a community, in church and in our world. That’s where I’m called to be and where I know St. John’s is called to be,” said Rev. Lew.

Rev. Anne was sent out to help in the town of Yankee Hill, connecting people with case managers to help with housing. One of Rev. Anne’s most meaningful moments was aiding in the process of finding permanent housing for a woman who lost her home. After a long process, the woman was finally able to get a trailer on her property.

 “It fills my heart because winter is coming, and she’s lived for a year in her car,” said Rev. Anne. This is just one story of the many people Rev. Anne has worked with.

Sherry Wallmark, parish administrator at St. John’s, began her position at the church just a few days before the start of the Camp Fire, and since then, Sherry has been busy juggling the various disaster relief organizations that have needed meeting spaces.

Rev. Anne with Julie, a member of Tzu Chi. Julie and Rev. Anne have worked hard to get those who lost their homes into housing.

L/R: Linn Brownmiller (Pastor Ann’s husband), Pastor Ann Sullivan, Brad Pierce, Sherry Wallmark, and Kathleen Leeson on Sept. 12, the first service at St. Nicholas,' Paradise since the fire. 

St. John’s went from being a “sleepy little church in Chico” to a “community church in Chico,” said Sherry. And, “even though it was a bad thing that happened, it was something that was magical to watch. You saw people that never hesitated and asked what could be done; and it felt right to be a part of this group that was so action-oriented.”

In the past year, St. John’s has hosted 33 disaster recovery groups, including FEMA, Red Cross, the City of Chico and many more. These groups are in addition to the 15 community groups who regularly used to meet at St. John’s before the fire. The recovery organizations struggle to find spaces that can accommodate their technical needs to get their work done, but St. John’s was able to open their doors with the right amenities available.

While it has been a huge amount of work scheduling groups for space at the church, Sherry said, “It has meant a lot to know that people come to us not because we are a church – but because they trust us.”

As we reflect on this past year of recovery, we would like to thank all those in the diocese who faithfully gave to Camp Fire recovery, whether it was through gift cards sent or monetary donations to the diocesan disaster relief fund. This is important, holy work, and because of your donations, our churches are able to be in the front line of recovery and be a place people trust will be there to help.

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