The people and clergy of All Saints by-the-Sea Episcopal Church returned to their church in time for services on Sunday, Feb. 4 after being forced out by deadly mudslides Jan. 9.
Then, according to their rector, the Rev. Aimee Eyer-Delevett, they went right back out again to bring comfort and sacraments to volunteer crews from Habitat for Humanity, the recently organized Santa Barbara Bucket Brigade and other groups that were at work digging out access paths to devastated areas of their Montecito neighborhood.
“We took communion to them, because that’s where God is, right?” said Eyer-Delevett, who has served the congregation for the past three years. “It’s been a really beautiful experience, to take the sacrament to these people, to give them strength and hope.”
The Eucharist teams have continued to visit cleanup crews each Sunday since. “As long as people are digging we’ll show up with the sacrament and remind them of God’s presence with them,” said Eyer-Delevett.
Unincorporated Santa Barbara-adjacent Montecito, along with nearby Carpinteria, is dealing with the aftermath of mudslides caused by an unusually heavy rainstorm that occurred soon after the Thomas fire burned large areas of the hillsides, stripping the vegetation that usually keeps soil in place.
During and immediately after the storm, local firefighters and the National Guard used All Saints as a staging area and triage center, caring for injured people inside the church while evacuees found shelter, food and clothing donated by parishioners and neighbors.
The ravages of the fires and mudslides were well covered by the local and national press. But All Saints’ ministry to those who suffered loss and trauma has continued after the media spotlight has moved on.
At first the congregation and its preschool had to deal with their own displacement as the area was completely evacuated after the mudslides, which demolished dozens of homes and killed 21 people; two more, including a toddler, are missing and presumed dead. Although none of the dead are All Saints members, several parishioners’ homes were destroyed.
During the evacuation, All Saints members worshiped at home gatherings and nearby congregations. Trinity hosted a special service Jan. 26 for All Saints parishioners — the first time the congregation was able to gather since the mudslides. On that occasion, Bishops John Harvey Taylor and Diane Jardine Bruce led a delegation from the Diocese of Los Angeles that included Canon to the Ordinary Melissa McCarthy; Robert Williams, canon for Common Life; and the Rev. Canon Michael Bamberger, diocesan disaster coordinator. Bruce, area bishop for the northern part of the diocese, handed Eyer-Delevett a $5,000 check, part of a diocesan fire and mudslide relief fund that has raised some $40,000. The fund has been used to assist the poor, homeless and undocumented in the fire and mudslide area — those who might otherwise find it difficult to get help, according to McCarthy.
Relief funds also helped subsidize extra Laundry Love events through the existing ministries supported by St. Andrew’s Church, Ojai, and St. Paul’s Church, Ventura. Laundry Love gave local indigent and poor residents opportunities to wash their smoke-infused clothing and bedding after the fires. Organizers provided food and distributed donated clothing during the events.
All Saints also has raised money to help its neighbors, concentrating on less-wealthy members of the generally affluent Montecito community, especially service workers, some of whom were living in small houses that were washed away by the mud or crushed by debris, and whose livelihoods have been crushed along with the homes of their employers.
“We have a group helping with pastoral and practical needs of residential families that were affected: meals, appointments, sitting in on insurance meetings, finding housing,” said Sheri Benninghoven, an All Saints parishioner and professional crisis communication specialist. “Even the mundane, like giving kids rides — everything we can do to help these families.
“It’s a resilient bunch,” she added. “They take one step and they take another step, and they get through it.”
Ministry in the wake of disaster
Once they were allowed back into their church in the last days of January, All Saints parishioners immediately went to work. They held a “Service of Hope and Remembrance” on Feb. 9, exactly one month after the storm that turned life in the community upside down. They invited everyone who had come through All Saints on Jan. 9: evacuees, first responders, those who donated food, clothing and blankets, and those who offered or received care and hospitality.
All Saints didn’t have contact information — or even names, in many cases — for the people who had been at their church that day, so they sent out the word in local news outlets, and asked their parishioners and neighbors to share widely on social media. Some 200 people attended the simple non-denominational service. Several responded to Eyer-Delevett’s invitation to stand up and tell their stories.
“People spoke about how truly transformative this experience was for them,” she said. “They could look across the pews at another person and say, this one let me shower in their home, this one comforted me when I didn’t know what happened to my loved ones.”
Benninghoven remembered another attendee who commented, “I needed help that day, and I made my way to All Saints — and I was in a position to give others help, and I did.” “It was incredibly heartfelt to hear how their hearts were touched,” said Benninghoven. “Now they have a relationship with All Saints, and maybe even with God.
“That’s why our buildings are important. It’s not about the doors and windows and walls; it’s about the sense of place. And people knew that if they made their way to All Saints they would find shelter and food and help.”
Many of those attending wrote messages on a large banner draped over the altar. Some memorialized the dead; others wrote notes of thanks to first responders and to All Saints. “We love you all. We are so sorry to so many. We are sad. We will be happy again,” wrote one person.
“Dear Pastor Aimee,” wrote another. “You have a wonderful congregation and I am so grateful for all you guys did for us and everyone in need”
While resuming its normal programs, the parish has continued to minister to its own parishioners and its neighbors, creating what Eyer-Delevett calls “a menu of opportunities.” A Lenten program will give parishioners opportunities to share their stories and “claim them as their own”; to meet with a representative of the Institute for Congregation Trauma & Growth to work on communal healing; to have small-group discussions with therapists; to learn about spiritual practices that will help ground them in their faith; to meet with healing touch practitioners, and more. Offerings are planned through April, and will probably continue beyond that time, Eyer-Delevett said.
“This is going to be at least a two-year healing process,” based on previous experiences of disaster recovery, she said.
The area will be vulnerable to mudslides for the next three to five years while vegetation on the hillsides is reestablished, according to Benninghoven, who is working with the Santa Barbara County emergency operations center. All Saints is one of four Montecito churches that are working with nonprofit and county organizations to gauge the overall needs of the community. The task force, she says, is “heavily focused on total evacuation in case of storms, with a 72-hour countdown.” Residents are asked to have a suitcase packed, so they can get out at a moment’s notice.
In addition, All Saints is establishing specific plans for its parish and preschool, which is now back in its facilities at the parish. “We’re worried and we’re watching the hillsides and the rain forecasts, and we’re recovering from the trauma of 21 funerals,” Benninghoven said. “We’re scared for our children. Our clergy and our staff are feeling a lot of pressure to lead this effort.”
But the congregation will be there for its members and its neighbors, Eyer-Delevett said, noting that All Saints’ 118 years of ministry in Montecito makes it an iconic presence there, a status heightened by its prominent role in the recent disaster.
In spite of the state of heightened anxiety and risk in which her parishioners and neighbors will live for the next few years, she said, “It’s beautiful to see the way people are responding to the needs of their fellow community members. Hope in action is being lived out.
“What an opportunity to be the church,” she added.