The devastation was all around them when Bishop John Taylor, the Rev. Canon Melissa McCarthy, canon to the ordinary, and the Rev. Canon Michael Bamberger, diocesan disaster relief coordinator, visited Ventura Dec. 12 to meet and offer help to Episcopalians and congregations affected by the fast-moving Thomas fire that wreaked havoc on the Ventura, Ojai and Santa Paula areas before spreading up the coast into Santa Barbara, Carpinteria and Montecito.
Taylor, McCarthy and Bamberger delivered the first checks from the Diocese of Los Angeles’ new fire relief fund to representatives of St. Paul’s Church, Ventura, St. Paul’s Church, Santa Paula, and St. Andrew’s Church, Ojai, all of which are engaged in assisting those affected.
Miles Sexton, senior warden of St. Paul’s, took the visitors on what Taylor called a “heartbreaking” tour to see the devastation before they met with area clergy and lay leaders, as well as one of approximately seven Episcopalians who have lost homes to the fires.
“The crisis touched the lives of everyone we met,” said Taylor. “There was no escaping it. One St. Paul’s, Ventura, member, Ruth, said she knows 15 people who’d lost their homes. Roger, who lost his, told the harrowing story of leaving his housing development by the one available road out. He and his family were stuck in a bottleneck, watching the fire approach in the rearview mirror.”
The fires forced churches to cancel services and clergy and parishioners to evacuate their homes even as they worked to assist their neighbors, including the homeless and other vulnerable people. The congregations receiving the checks will use the money to purchase gift cards from local grocery stores, which they will distribute to those most in need.
“There is nothing quite like seeing with one’s own eyes the impact of the fires,” said McCarthy. “The emotional toll is immense and will be long lasting. It was quite moving to be there, to listen to the stories each person shared, and to be with them in the shock and grief. It’s easy to say that it’s only stuff; but the stuff lost the fire is also memories, connection, and a feeling of place. To lose all of that is devastating.”
The diocese’s fundraising effort continues, as the need will continue to be great for a long time to come. The secure online link is www.EDLAFireHelp.org.
Contributions may also be made by checks made payable to the Diocese of Los Angeles (“Fire Relief Fund” in the memo line) and sent to the Cathedral Center of St. Paul, 840 Echo Park Avenue, Los Angeles 90026.
The diocese also received a $5,000 emergency relief grant from Episcopal Relief & Development.
Some of the funds will be used to help the existing Laundry Love ministries in Ojai and Ventura hold what Bamberger calls “Laundry Love on steroids” to help the homeless and those without other resources to clean clothes and bedding fouled by the ash and smoke-filled air that is the fires’ lingering legacy even after the flames have passed.
During their visit to Ventura, Taylor, McCarthy and Bamberger attended that evening’s Laundry Love, and were encouraged by seeing Episcopal churches in action helping those who needed it most.
“At Laundry Love, where some of the clients have no homes to lose, we were struck by the uncomplaining resiliency of folks who grapple with crisis every day,” said Taylor. “Over and over again, laity and clergy said the same things: There’s unity in this moment. We’re all in this together. Amen!”
The Rev. Greg Kimura, rector of St. Andrew’s, Ojai, has reported that the Ojai Laundry Love — usually a monthly occurrence — is opening several extra days in the next week, and may be held once a week thereafter until the need is met. “I expect it to be slammed,” he said.
Bamberger pointed to the Laundry Love response as an example of how congregations are able to help in a crisis. “We were able to leverage existing ministries so that the churches that are affected are helping their neighbors in an extraordinary way,” he said. “This kind of leverage is really essential in disaster work.”
Although the fire has left the Ventura area, it is still burning in Santa Barbara County. Evacuation orders were issued Dec. 10 in Santa Barbara and Montecito, where All Saints by-the-Sea Church had to cancel its services when the evacuation warning area was extended to Eucalyptus Lane, where the church and its parish school are located.
Trinity Church in Santa Barbara, which held its usual Sunday services, opened a “warming shelter” for homeless neighbors, according to assistant priest Laurel Johnston, and has asked parishioners to consider opening their guest rooms for displaced Episcopalians.
The Rev. Adam McCoy, prior of Mt. Calvary Monastery and Retreat Center in Santa Barbara, reported that their facility is across the street from the evacuation zone, and that he and the other three resident monks packed up in case they too needed to move. McCoy said it has been a difficult time for the brothers, whose previous mountaintop retreat center was destroyed by the Tea fire in 2008.
At the blended congregations of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church and Emmanuel Lutheran Church, Santa Paula, parishioners came together Dec. 10 for two well-attended Sunday services, offering each other care and support, according to church administrator Paula Robertson. Many of the church’s members had to be evacuated when the fire burned through the town. “It’s going to be weeks before people can get back in their homes,” said Robertson. “Now that the immediate threat of fire is gone, we’re all exhausted.”
The Rev. Susan Bek, rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Ventura, reported on Facebook that the church was safe and open for those needing shelter.
Kimura held church through Facebook Live on Dec. 10, even as the St. Andrew’s congregation prepared to host the Ojai Valley Family Shelter on Monday night. Kimura had moved his family to Buellton after orders came to evacuate Dec. 4. They returned home briefly the following weekend, but were forced back out by the AQMD-rated “very unhealthful” air, and took refuge in San Luis Obispo.
St. Andrew’s was hosting the homeless shelter the night the fire broke out, but its clients had to be moved to a Red Cross shelter at a local high school. Kimura, like other clergy involved in shelters, was concerned for undocumented clients, some of whom feared to go to the Red Cross shelter in case it was raided by ICE (U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement).
The Kimuras weren’t the only clergy family that had to flee their homes. Susan Bek’s family also sought refuge with relatives. The Rev. Anthony Guillen, the Episcopal Church’s missioner for Latino/Hispanic ministries, and his wife, Guadalupe Moriel-Guillen, were awakened by “an angel who came out of nowhere” — a man visiting a neighbor — who banged on the door of their Ventura home.
The Guillens had an hour to pack some clothes and gather important papers and computer hardware before the glow turned red and seemed to be advancing toward their driveway, Guillen told Episcopal News Service (ENS). As of Dec. 11, the Guillens’ home was safe, but their immediate neighborhood suffered severe losses, with entire streets a ghost land of ash and lonely chimneys.
The Rev. Nicole Janelle, director of The Abundant Table farm ministry, and her family didn’t wait for an evacuation order. “Given that we have two small children, we thought it would be more prudent to leave on the early end [of the evacuation] than on the later end,” she told ENS.
The Abundant Table farm suffered damage not from flames, which didn’t reach its Santa Paula location, but from wind and a lack of water for irrigation as supplies were diverted to fighting the fire.
Bamberger, a longtime volunteer firefighter, predicted that the fires would continue burning for weeks until a significant rainfall — something the area has not seen since last spring. Even though the Santa Ana winds that have driven the flames have died down, “fires create their own windstorm,” he said. “It’s going to be very erratic, and very dangerous for firefighters.” Bamberger expects the fire to continue burning all the way up to Santa Ynez and Los Olivos.
The Thomas Fire is only one of the blazes that have threatened Southern California communities in what is being called the worst year on record for wildfires in the state. Other recent fires that have been partly or fully contained include the Skirball fire in Los Angeles’ Bel-Air neighborhood, the Creek fire in Sylmar and the Rye fire in Santa Clarita. Some 5,700 firefighters have been deployed to fire areas.
The clergy in the affected areas are worried about how their communities will recover as the fires move on or are put out. “I am concerned that afterwards there’s going to be a tremendous amount of need for rebuilding,” Kimura told ENS.
Bamberger echoed Kimura’s concern and warned that exhaustion is a real threat. “After-disaster recovery is a marathon, not a sprint,” he said. “People need to be attentive to self-care; clergy have to see to their own needs — care for the caregiver. This time is full of anxiety, full of stress. It’s normal in this kind of situation, but we have to take care of ourselves and others.”
The Rev. Mary Frances Schjonberg of Episcopal News Service contributed to this report.