Recently I had the opportunity to work in Santa Rosa for a day with the Salvation Army as part of their “Emotional and Spiritual Care Team.” I left my house before the sun rose to report at 7:00am to the Santa Rosa Salvation Army headquarters. There, I joined several other pastors and counselors as we received an orientation about what to expect in both the Coffey Park and Fountaingrove areas of Santa Rosa following the fires that had devastated both neighborhoods. We were asked to offer spiritual and emotional support, mostly in the form of listening to stories and allowing residents a safe space to process their losses. Our leaders reminded us that many of the residents were still in shock, and most were not sure what their next steps would be.
The other important task at hand was physical nourishment. The Salvation Army had found that many residents would forget to eat and drink while working at their property. We were to go into the neighborhoods to offer water and snacks, and also to remind people of the food trucks generously provided in each neighborhood by Google for lunch. I learned not to ask, “Would you like some water,” but instead to say, “I have brought you some water and snacks.” We did not want to give people an opportunity to turn down the sustenance that they needed.
Following the orientation, I donned my red Salvation Army vest (see picture) and headed out. I had seen pictures of the burned neighborhoods, but nothing could have prepared me to see the remains first-hand. And I use the word “remains” lightly, as almost nothing remained. I was assigned to work in the Fountaingrove area, and as we drove by burned-out shells of cars and driveways leading to nowhere, I said prayers of thanksgiving for the memories that had been made and contained in those houses, as well as prayers of hope and healing for all that had been lost.We did not encounter many residents as we drove through the neighborhoods in the morning hours. So little is left, that there really is not much a resident can physically do at their property. We did see two or three people sifting through ash in an attempt to salvage something, and three or four others meeting with insurance adjusters. All were grateful for our presence, and for our water and snacks.
People began to come out of the woodwork at lunch, and we served over 100 meals from the Google food truck. The Salvation Army workers who had been there all week saw many familiar faces, and began to learn the stories of those who had lost their homes. We also encountered many clean-up and restoration workers – from multiple Comcast trucks to Fountaingrove country club employees to emergency responders from Team Rubicon, everyone was working hard to at least make a dent in the massive clean-up that lies ahead.
I don’t know if I made a difference in anyone’s life that day, but that day certainly made a difference in me. I was reminded of the strength and resiliency of the human spirit. I was reminded of the importance of community. I was impressed by the Salvation Army. I do not agree with them on many theological points, but the Salvation Army employees and volunteers that I encountered that day were not concerned about having theological debates. They were there to provide support in a time of need, and they were going to do that in the very best way that they could.
Following the fires, I have heard from many people that they want to do something to help. There will be plenty to do in the coming months, I am sure. From what I witnessed, though, right now prayers and money are the most helpful. Residents are still in the figuring out what to do stage. Some will rebuild, but some aren’t so sure. Donation centers are overwhelmed … we had more water bottles and granola bars that we could ever give away! But, the residents were so appreciative of our prayers. I was told by several people that the knowledge that they are not alone in this – that so many people are praying for them and holding them in God’s light – has been priceless for them. In the coming weeks and months, we will continue to find ways to be helpful to our North Bay neighbors. There may be work projects to come. But for now, know that your prayers and your monetary donations are making a difference.