West Coast Fire Evacuations Take Toll on UCC Churches, Camps and Their Communities

As wind-whipped wildfires continue to take lives and destroy forests, homes and businesses on the West Coast of the U.S., United Church of Christ congregations are in stages ranging from evacuation to recovery to post-traumatic stress syndrome. In the two hardest hit UCC conferences– Central Pacific and Northern California-Nevada– several congregations and church camps await word on the fate of their buildings. Others, evacuated days or weeks ago, are ministering to families and communities that escaped damage or are returning to inspect it. Daytime skies range from smoky gray to eerie orange to black as night. Amid it all, pastors say they value how colleagues are checking in on each other, offering mutual support, advice and prayer– a response borne of years of relationship building within each Conference and within the wider church.

All of this creates further disruption of worship and outreach that have been altered for months by the COVID-19 pandemic– and creates ministry concerns above and beyond the fires. Breathing issues, smoke exposure, immune responses, and psychological effects on individuals, congregations, and communities as they evacuate, return and try to keep track of each other. The generosity of people opening their homes to those in need, at a time of  pandemic, is both scary and wonderful.

“It feels like the whole coast is on fire” said Pastor Kimberly Williams of Grace Community UCC, which got evacuation orders on Sept. 6, her first official Sunday as Pastor. In affected areas, “It’s terrifying,” she said. “Everybody is looking out their windows with this look of horror, but then realizing, OK, this is the reality, we’ve got to keep on going”. The thing that has really stood out to me is the way the clergy, in a disaster, really reach out and care for each other,” Williams said. “I had phone calls with people checking what our needs are, letting us know they’re praying for us, asking what help we need. You can get to feel isolated in your church, doing your work, and then recognize you’re connected. As a soon-to-be-clergy, how we’re connected denominationally has been a huge theme for me.”

UCC Disaster Ministries is monitoring the situation and has set up a 2020 Wildfires relief fund, found here (https://www.ucc.org/2020_wildfires). The UCC responds to a natural or human-made  disaster once every three days through our disaster Ministries and One Great Hour of Sharing (we participate annually in this campaign here at Second Church). Those systems are in place because of the funds given in the past by congregants for just such a time as this! “In the coming weeks, there are going to be many opportunities to help those affected by the fires,” Pacific Northwest Conference Minister, Michael Denton said. “COVID has already made communities, families and individuals more vulnerable, and now this. Pray for all those people and creatures affected as well as the earth itself. As the requests for giving come, give what you can. As the requests for advocacy come, participate. We can do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with God, together.”

(excerpts taken from UCC.org news)

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