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Church responds to wildfire, victims respond to Gospel

PETALUMA, Calif. (BP) — Around 150 people a day for four days this week found love and caring after they were forced to evacuate their homes as a result of the Kincade Fire in northern California. At least 17 of those also received eternal life.

The Kincade Fire in Sonoma County, as of noon Thursday (Oct. 31), was one of a dozen wildfires blazing in California, including two that started Thursday morning. A “perfect storm” of unusually high winds, overly-dry underbrush and low humidity led to the wildfires, which then led to mandatory evacuations of people living in endangered areas.

Petaluma Valley Baptist Church (PVBC) responded to the needs of people affected by the nearly 80,000-acre Kincade Fire north of San Francisco by opening its building as an emergency shelter.

“Petaluma is the first major city south of the endangered area and tens of thousands of people fled south,” said PVBC pastor Alan Cross. “The official city-run shelters quickly overflowed so the city asked churches if they would help.”

Cross received a call at 5:30 a.m. Sunday from the Petaluma Emergency Operations Center about the need for shelters and immediately said yes. He credited associate pastor Steve Moulyn and children’s director Michelle Martin as the primary leaders at the shelter, which grew to meet the needs of nearly 160 people a day during the four days it was open.

“The church was amazing and our people went to work preparing rooms and places to sleep, eat and rest,” Cross said. “We welcomed people with pets and didn’t worry about anything being damaged. We kept saying that this is why we are here, to love God and love our neighbor, and that we were here for our community whatever it took.

“We didn’t have a plan,” the pastor told Baptist Press. “But we couldn’t comprehend not welcoming people fleeing for their lives and needing a place to stay, food to eat, and love and hospitality.”

Monday morning the pastor invited their guests to join in the church’s morning prayers. About 25 people did.

“I wanted it to be voluntary because I didn’t want people to feel like they had to sit through a Bible study to be fed or have a place to sleep,” Cross said. “I wanted them to know we loved them no matter what.”

A short biblical thought about God’s love was followed by prayers for protection for firefighters, peoples’ homes and the towns they lived in.

“We asked God to stop the fire and the wind as well,” Cross said.

They did the same — in English and in Spanish — Monday evening, Tuesday morning and Tuesday evening. And the prayer group, largely made up of Hispanic immigrants, grew each time.

“On Wednesday morning, I shared the Gospel clearly in addition to our normal prayers and invited people to trust Christ as their Savior,” the pastor recounted. “At least 17 people indicated they were placing their faith in Jesus, and we celebrated what God did in saving them.”

Evacuation orders lifted Wednesday afternoon as the Kincade fire became nearly 50 percent contained, and the church began to empty.

“Person after person before leaving said they had never experienced love and welcome like this, and it was life-changing,” Cross said. “The gospel message was accompanied by a significant demonstration of love and welcome for our neighbors, and it made an impact on them.

“God was present with us throughout the week,” the pastor continued. “He answered every prayer, provided for us, did miracles, and spread His love and peace over us in an astounding way…. I’m thankful to serve a church that answered that call of sacrificial love without hesitation.”

The Kincade was one of at least five fires burning north of Interstate 80 at midday Thursday (Oct. 31), and six or more blazed farther south, including two east of Los Angeles that started during Thursday morning’s wind gusts of up to 60 mph.

In Southern California, the National Weather Service issued its first-ever “extreme red flag warning” for much of the highly-populated Ventura and Los Angeles counties, with conditions “as dangerous for fire growth and behavior as we have seen in recent memory,” the weather service said in its warning, which lasted until 6 p.m. Thursday.

Southern Baptists are prepared to respond wherever they’re called, Mike Bivins told Baptist Press. Bivins is California Southern Baptist Disaster Relief state director.

“We try to respond where the local churches are responding, and in that way increase their response to the people in their community,” Bivins said.

Fifteen trained volunteers plus about 30 other Southern Baptists had joined in when Petaluma Valley Baptist became an official emergency shelter earlier this week.

“Our response here is largely based on not the evacuation numbers themselves, but … more directly to the shelter population,” Bivins said. “That’s where people are feeding [disaster victims] and providing emotional and spiritual care.”

He added that he keeps his cell phone close by at all times to be able to respond immediately when churches call.

“We’re not out of fire danger yet by any means, because the dry, windy conditions still exist,” Bivins said. “But for the moment there’s a lull.”

As of Friday (Nov. 1), the wind in California is expected to be relatively calm for the next seven days, according to the National Weather Service.