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Fire relief fund helps California UUs recover

Unitarian Universalist contribute more than $50,000 to help California UUs in fire's aftermath.
By Donald E. Skinner

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The fires are mostly out, but the soot and ash remain as members of Unitarian Universalist congregations in Southern California put their lives back together after the devastating wildfires that began October 21.

UUs around the world have contributed more than $50,000 to a fire relief fund set up by the Pacific Southwest District of the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations. District Executive the Rev. Ken Brown said the money will be used to help individual UUs and congregations. Any remaining funds will go for other relief work in the broader community. He said about $20,000 has been disbursed to about a dozen families.

Brown said the need is greater this time than in 2003, the last damaging wildfire season. Only a few UU families lost homes, but many others returned to find their home interiors covered with soot and ash, requiring expensive professional cleaning. Insurance often does not cover those costs, he noted, which can run $1,500 or more.

“What a lot of people don’t realize is that although news broadcasts talk about houses in Southern California being expensive,” he said, “a lot of our folks have lived there 30 to 40 years. Some may be house-rich, but they’re still struggling to make it in this economy. It’s hard to come up with money for a large insurance deductible.”

He said 200 to 250 UU families were evacuated during the fires, some for one or two days; others are still not back in their homes. Families from 10 congregations were affected. “Currently we’re working with about 18 families,” he said. Most are from the Chalice UU Congregation of Escondido, in northern San Diego County. Other affected congregations range from the UU Church of Riverside to First UU Church of San Diego.

The Rev. Margo McKenna-Brower, minister of the Chalice congregation, was one of those who narrowly escaped the fires. She and her husband fled their condo early one morning and could not return for 10 days. Their residence survived, but suffered soot and ash damage.

She said the fire was a reminder to her that “this is a very strong, very connected congregation and I can trust the leadership to take care of things that need to be done. When I was out of my home they worked on connecting with one another as well as with me. I love that they want me. I love that they don’t absolutely need me.”

Visits by the UU Trauma Response Ministry, a group of UU clergy who respond to traumatic situations, have been helpful, she said. “We are overwhelmed by the support of our UU community around the country. We have not wanted for any need. Members of the Trauma Response Ministry were in Southern California within a few days of the outbreak of the fires and have returned several times.”

One particular gesture stands out, said McKenna-Brower. “We received a card from the First Parish Church of Ashby, Mass. In it was a check and some fall leaves and a note in a child’s handwriting saying the leaves were so that we could have some color and beauty in the midst of our troubles. That moved the congregation more than any other gesture, for a child to recognize that fall colors could be such a gift. We posted the note and the leaves on our bulletin board.”

Rose Myers, a member of Chalice who is coordinating fire relief efforts for the congregation, added, “I’m hugely grateful for how quickly other UUs responded to our needs. It made our jobs here a lot easier.” She said many congregants initially declared their self-sufficiency, but as the weeks have gone on some have acknowledged difficulties with being able to focus and being afraid to leave home. “Survivor guilt is huge,” she said. “When homes around you are burned but yours did not, it can make you wonder why yours was spared. I’ve been encouraging people to reach out and help others. It gives them a sense they’re doing something.”

There is still a danger of more fires across Southern California. A wildfire late last week destroyed 53 homes in the Malibu area of Los Angeles before it was brought under control. More than 10,000 people were evacuated.

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