‘People’s lives are falling down on us as ash’

‘People’s lives are falling down on us as ash’

California Unitarian Universalists offer their homes as fires overwhelm communities.

Tina Porter
Charred vehicles are seen next to a wildfire-ravaged home in an aerial view Saturday, Oct. 14, 2017, in Santa Rosa, Calif.

Charred vehicles are seen next to a wildfire-ravaged home in an aerial view Saturday, Oct. 14, 2017, in Santa Rosa, Calif. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez


As deadly fires in Northern California forced the evacuation of tens of thousands of people and destroyed thousands of buildings, Unitarian Universalists in the region are finding comfort and help at UU congregations.

The Rev. Chris Bell, senior minister at the UU Congregation in Santa Rosa, California, kept the congregation’s buildings open and available to members and friends. Nearly a dozen families in the Santa Rosa congregation have lost homes since the early morning hours on Monday, October 9, when the wall of flames came racing into town, giving evacuees only minutes to flee. Bell expects that number to rise as the fires have continued to burn and spread. Almost 3,000 buildings in Santa Rosa have been destroyed, according to the New York Times.

On October 10, Bell posted on the congregation’s website: “For now our congregational home, the Glaser Center, is safe and has power and Internet. We will continue to be open throughout the day and into the evening to provide a safe space for anyone who needs company, rest, or a prayer.”

Bell and other members of the congregation used their Facebook page to check in with each other, naming those who are safe.

Bell said he has also had contact from many other colleagues from the area offering help with housing. “At this point, everyone that we know needs housing has it,” he said. “We are doing okay. The church has been a headquarters for many, and we are holding space for each other. And I am really looking forward to worshipping together on Sunday.”

The Rev. Kristin Grassel Schmidt, cominister with her husband the Rev. Christian Schmidt of the UU Church of Berkeley, has been coordinating with members of her congregation who are eager to help their neighbors in some meaningful way. “We started with an email, asking members of the congregation if they would be able, if the need is expressed, to provide housing” for someone who has been displaced, said Schmidt. “We had about thirty households respond that they had a spare room and many more who would have liked to, but just didn’t have the space,” said Schmidt.

The Berkeley congregation is about 30 miles from the closest fire, but Schmidt says the impact of the fires is ever present throughout the area. “People’s lives are falling down on us as ash,” she said.

“There is no preparation for this kind of event, and it is so hard to see suffering on this scale,” said Schmidt. “But, as a minister, it is so moving and humbling to see the generosity expressed by members of this congregation.”

Bell echoed Schmidt as he talked about the Santa Rosa congregation. “This community is a blessing and is really coming together,” he said. “It is gratifying to see that all the energy that we put into building community bears fruit. We are strong and resilient.” But, Bell said, what is required in the moment is the “fluidity of cash and the power of prayer. Pray for rain.”

The congregation has created a fund to help local congregants get the equipment and furnishings they will need to live in the next few months because many had to leave their homes so quickly there was no time to grab even necessities.

The Rev. Jan Christian, a member of the UUA’s Congregational Life staff for the Pacific Western Region, is working with Napa Valley Unitarian Universalists, a congregation whose minister, the Rev. Dr. Bonnie Dlott, had previously announced she was leaving her position on October 22. Dlott and members of the congregation are also using Facebook to check in with each other. Christian has also reached out to congregations in San Rafael (in Marin County) and with UU leadership throughout the affected region.

Christian worked with the Pacific Western Region to authorize the UUA Disaster Relief Fund to accept requests for aid from congregations affected by the wildfires. “Neither [the Santa Rosa congregation’s] fund nor ours will begin to meet the out-of-pocket expenses for even their members,” Christian said.

Christian says she has two takeaways from this disaster. One is that it is imperative to create emergency communications plans that include social media but don’t depend on it. The other, she says, is the spirit expressed in Santa Rosa, where they are open not just with a spaghetti dinner, but arms to hold and ears to listen. “The healing comes from people who are present in their loss,” she said. “It is a reminder that we all belong to each other.”