SAN BERNARDINO, Calif. (BP)–For 10 years I looked out on the beautiful San Bernardino Mountains while serving as pastor of Magnolia Avenue Baptist Church in Riverside, Calif. So it was with great anticipation that I looked forward to doing my North American Mission Board staff mission week in Southern California the last week of October. But my plans were changed by the devastating wildfires sweeping through thousands of acres in the region, so far killing nearly two dozen people and destroying more than 2,000 homes.
One look at the skies while traveling from San Diego to Temecula for a Sunday morning preaching engagement and I realized things were going to go differently than planned. The huge fires that hit San Diego late Saturday created ash that rained from an eerie gray sky. Fire shut down Interstate 15; my wife, Leslie, and I were forced to detour, arriving at the church much later than planned but with five minutes to spare. After the service it was obvious that fires were breaking out everywhere … and that it would only get worse.
The extent of the danger really hit home when I offered my services to the local director of missions, Paul Wilkerson. He directed me to assist a Hispanic pastor, Sal Martinez, who lives in the Del Rosa area of San Bernardino. The wildfire had burned homes to the ground less than a block from where he lives.
The cliché that ‘you have to see it to believe it’ held true for me. The reality of what I saw in Sal’s neighborhood was worse than I could have imagined. While three homes in the immediate area were not destroyed, only chimneys remained standing next door and across the street … and on street after street. Fanned by dry 50-mile-per-hour Santa Anna winds, the wildfire seemed to play hopscotch, taking five homes but leaving three. The frightful game was played until 350 homes valued at over $225 million were destroyed in this one area alone. A friend compared the scene to a war zone.
So what do you do for hurting people? Bottled water and facemasks were welcomed by almost everyone. Prayers were much appreciated as well.
I recently battled cancer. Because of the comfort God brought me during that time of personal crisis, I was able to relate to these hurting people in a way that otherwise I might not have been able to do. I was able to say to these devastated victims that there are times when life doesn’t seem to make sense, but to lean on the One who can bring sense in times like these.
I found truth in the words of 2 Corinthians 1:3-4 (“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction so that we will be able to comfort those who are in any affliction with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.”) as God enabled me to comfort others with the comfort with which He had comforted me.
I then spent two days serving food to those who had taken shelter in an old Norton Air Force Base hanger. A sea of cots covered the floor of the huge facility. California Southern Baptists had deployed a mobile kitchen there and a team of volunteers served thousands of hot meals each day. It felt good to help these displaced people know the love of God by ministering to them this way.
There is much still to do, but SBC churches are rallying to the challenge and I am happy to have had a small part to play in a mission week that truly provided a real mission opportunity. Answering His call is a fulfilling expression of what it means to be an on-mission follower of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Metzger directs the North American Mission Board’s Strategic Focus Cities emphasis.