(Shown in photo — Living Water Family Fellowship near Blue River in Lane County, engulfed in flames from the Holiday Farm Fire. Photo is courtesy Assemblies of God)
By JOHN FORTMEYER, CNNW publisher
Termed one of the greatest disasters in Northwest history, the unprecedented rash of wildfires that swept across Oregon last month compelled churches and ministries to show God’s love through widespread relief efforts.
While the full response efforts are too numerous to detail here, the following serve as examples of how the Christian community responded to lives lost, thousands of homes and other structures destroyed and tens of thousands displaced by evacuations:
Mark Hunter, director of development at Union Gospel Mission of Salem, said more people than usual stayed at the facility to escape the smoke that saturated the Willamette Valley, and the mission saw a 15 percent increase in meals served, The mission’s search and rescue van constantly visited local homeless camps to provide bottled water, food, and transportation to the mission.
As millions of acres burned in the three West Coast states, Franklin Graham’s Samaritan’s Purse relief agency initially sent volunteers to California and immediately afterward launched a second response in Oregon. The volunteer teams sifted through ashes to salvage keepsakes that are priceless to families who lost everything — an important step to foster healing and closure in the recovery process. “We want to come alongside them during this difficult time, helping them salvage their personal belongings while reminding them of the hope found only in Jesus Christ,” said Graham.
Partnering with Samaritan’s Purse was the Billy Graham Rapid Response Team, which sent chaplains to Medford as well as California. “Our crisis-trained chaplains are listening to the stories of those who were impacted and we are providing emotional and spiritual care to those who have lost property, homes and loved ones,” said the team’s assistant director, Josh Holland.
Churches Providing Shelter
RockPoint Church in Newberg hosted 40 evacuees from The Country Church in Molalla, including Pastor Gary and Carolyn Syphard, who stayed at the Newberg church for a week. Molalla was threatened by the Riverside Fire in Clackamas County.
“It was like summer camp with extreme smoke,” said RockPoint Pastor Jeff Wells. “The evacuees brought their trailers and set up camp in our parking lot, and the church was open 24/7 for meals, a landing place, games and movies, and so much food. Local restaurants donated coffee and many meals and our RockPoint ladies cooked every day.”
Three of RockPoint families opened their homes to evacuees who did not own trailers. But on top of that, 10 families from RockPoint also were themselves threatened by the Chehalem Mountain Fire, with four of those families having to evacuate.
At least three other Newberg churches — Northwest Christian, Northside Community and Red Hills — made their facilities available as evacuation centers. Countless other churches in dozens of communities throughout the state did the same.
Thousands of Meals Served
The Oregon state government asked The Salvation Army to provide 6,000 boxed meals per day at three evacuation locations. They were Clackamas Town Center, the Oregon State Fairgrounds in Salem, and the Jackson County Expo & Fairgrounds in Central Point. The Salvation Army also had earlier begun serving meals at the Linn-Benton Fairgrounds in Albany, the Douglas County Fairgrounds in Roseburg and the Newport Recreation Center in Lincoln County.
Additionally, The Salvation Army’s Hope House in Medford sheltered dozens of evacuees. Overall, The Salvation Army sought to provide food and emotional support in 10 Oregon counties.
Evacuees in RVs Aided
The Seventh-day Adventist Church’s Gladstone Park campground southeast of Portland opened its gates for evacuees to camp. More than 100 recreational vehicles wound up parked there.
Donations of food, water, and children’s board games, coloring books, and crayons came in for the evacuees, including a truckload of food brought in by the owners of Hue Vegan Cafe. On Sept. 11 a free pancake breakfast was provided to the evacuees by Chris Cakes Northwest.
The Adventists’ Oregon Conference did not hold its annual in-person gathering at Gladstone Park this summer due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but the fire evacuation still brought a crowd there.
“It looks like God wanted to have a camp meeting after all,” wrote one person on the Oregon Conference Facebook site.
Coordination with State Agencies
In an email, the state Department of Health Services and Oregon Health Authority asked that nonprofits, including churches, responding to the crisis keep them and the state Office of Emergency Management updated on the extent of community needs.
“Faith communities are sought out as a source of hope and strength during challenging times. If there is anything we can do to support your faith community, please reach out to our faith liaison team,” wrote Maria Waters, regional outreach coordinator for the state.
Church Buildings Fall to Fire
The unpredictability of fire was demonstrated in the fact that an Oregon church building was spared while all other nearby buildings were lost to fire, but churches in three other communities were destroyed.
“If you look at that picture, what you will see is that everything is burned, right around the building,” said Pastor Ivan Roman, whose Empowered Life Church in Talent survived the flames, said in a Facebook video. “We are so grateful that the building is untouched, and our heart is to use it for those in need, but right now, our hands are tied … our church wants to embrace the fact that we actually need help right now.” He explained that some people associated with the church lost their homes or have loved ones who lost homes.
Living Water Family Fellowship, an Assemblies of God church near the Lane County community of Blue River, had its building and parsonage destroyed by the Holiday Farm Fire. Most of the church’s 60 regular attenders also lost their homes. The church is pastored by Doug and Cheri Fairrington. The Assemblies of God’s Oregon Ministry Network has set up a relief fund at oregonag.org
The Lionshead Fire took out about 70 percent of the buildings in the Marion County town of Detroit, including Detroit Community Church. All that is left of the church building itself are its front steps and a sign welcoming families to the church. Similarly, a fireplace and chimney are all that remains of Dodge Community Church just south of Estacada following the Riverside Fire. Members told KPTV Channel 12 they are eager to rebuild.