Church helps wildfire evacuees find faith amid unfolding crisis
HIGHLAND, Calif. (BP)--Surrounded on three sides by roaring flames a mile away, Immanuel Baptist Church became a beacon of God's love to families in crisis.
Of the 80 people who found the church in San Bernardino County to be a safe haven from wildfires, six of them accepted Christ as their Savior Sunday morning Oct. 26.
"It was so exciting to see how even out of a tragedy the church ministered as the hands and feet of Christ," said Gail Mullennix, director of the Thrift Store at the Highland, Calif., church. "We have watched people just come and sit in our parking lot because they feel safe here."
When families in the San Bernardino County area were evacuated Saturday night, Oct. 25, the church opened its doors as a shelter.
More than 500 homes have been lost in the seven-day old fire that covers a 40-mile urban interface area in the county. In various Southern California fires, more than 1,000 homes have been lost and 500,000 acres burned. The San Bernadino fire, a combination of two fires that had merged into one during the weekend, had caused two deaths and was only 10 percent contained as of Oct. 28, according to reports by the Associated Press.
Eighteen families in the Immanuel congregation who lost their homes were being given clothing and toiletry bags from the church Oct. 28, along with vouchers for grocery stores. Starting on Oct. 29, the entire community will receive the same gifts.
"We are putting out ads in the paper for victims to come and get clothing and food vouchers or just a cup of coffee and a donut," Mullennix said. Funds from church donations and various outside organizations have helped meet the needs of the victims.
"God is moving in the hearts of people through this tragedy," Mullennix said. "People have called from all over wanting to help out and donate."
As emergency relief efforts are still being organized, some churches already have begun ministering.
In the Del Rosa area of San Bernardino, Sal Martinez, pastor of Del Rosa Baptist Church, was one of the few who did not lose his home in his neighborhood.
He rallied church members Oct. 27 to pass out bottles of water, dust masks and 100 turkey sandwiches to those in need.
"Mostly we just ask if we can pray with them, and giving them a bottle of water opens the door to share our faith with them," Martinez said. "Most of them are in shock and welcome the prayer."
Set Free Church of Yucaipa began passing out blankets, making balloon animals for children and providing bottles of water at Norton Air Force Base in San Bernardino, an evacuation site set up by the Red Cross.
"We just want to show the love of Jesus," said Mark Souter, assistant director of men's discipleship at Set Free Yucaipa. "We're trying to do everything we can to meet their needs."
Souter has organized several groups to go to other areas burned by the devastating fires that have consumed Southern California neighborhoods.
Officials of the Inland Empire Baptist Association are deploying mobile showers and kitchens.
"Most people got away with nothing but the clothes on their backs," said Paul Wilkerson, director of missions for the association with 182 churches. "We have about 40 churches in our association that have been affected by these fires. It's still too early to tell to what extent they have been affected."
Wilkerson and officials with the California Southern Baptist Convention are working to set up clothes closets and food pantries and to provide childcare assistance and other needs for victims of the fires.
"We have 100 trained chaplains and others from outside the state ready to do crisis counseling," said Don Hargis, the state convention's director of men's ministry in charge of disaster relief.
"I've helped in over 30 disasters and this is the worst I've seen," said Hargis, who is working with the American Red Cross and other volunteer groups to best meet the needs of the victims.
"The Inland Empire [association] has a strong community of faith that will support these families," Hargis said. "They will receive a lot of help spiritually."
Kelli Cottrell is a freelance writer in the San Bernardino, Calif., area.