SAN DIEGO (BP)–Seven-year-old Dalton Woods clutched a brown, plush teddy bear he had just received from church members of Shadow Mountain Community Church in El Cajon.
It was the only toy he had after fleeing his trailer that was one of 202 homes in his small, mountain community of Crest consumed by Southern California wildfires in late October.
“This is wonderful,” said Trina Woods, his mother who had come back to the town of 2,700 residents to see what was left of their trailer. “I can’t stop crying. We’ve lost everything and have nowhere to go. We’ve been living in our truck since last week and our son has to go back to school tomorrow.”
The Woodses are among hundreds in Crest being shown the love of Jesus through Shadow Mountain members who have adopted the community that sits on a hill about a quarter-mile behind the church facility.
“We are going to do everything we can to help rebuild the community,” said David Jeremiah, pastor of the 6,000-member church and president of the Christian Heritage College that were narrowly spared from the San Diego County fires. “As followers of Jesus, this is what we know He would do. We are doing everything we can to help the families in Crest.”
Twenty families, including professors and staff of the college and church, lost their homes in the fires.
Pastors on staff at the church were each assigned a family to encourage and find out what their needs are, Jeremiah said.
“Most of the time we call [the fire victims] and they encourage us and bless us by their strength,” said Jeremiah, who was told by fire officials on Saturday night, Oct. 25, that he would not see his church the next day. “We want to be God’s representatives in this community. Our church was spared by a southern breeze that took the fire the other way. We prayed for God to spare it and He did.”
Jeremiah, whose church recently joined the Southern Baptist Convention, will be among the featured speakers during the California Southern Baptist Convention’s Nov. 16-19 annual meeting in San Diego.
The Crest community was consumed by one of several huge blazes in Southern California that have killed 20 people, destroyed more than 3,400 homes and scorched more than 750,000 acres before weather conditions slowed their rampage during the Oct. 31 weekend.
With permission from city officials, the Southern Baptist church has set up large white tents for a distribution center of food, clothing, $100 Wal-Mart gift cards, Bibles and Red Cross assistance in Nancy Jane Park, which is surrounded by the rubble and ash of burned homes where residents who lost everything have been camping on their property to avoid looting.
The Woodses were placed in a home of one of the church families for temporary housing.
“God bless you,” Woods told members of Shadow Mountain. She evacuated her home with only the clothes on her back.
“I didn’t even grab my husband’s shoes or my purse with my paycheck in it,” she said. “We didn’t have time for anything. The fire was like the devil chasing us. We prayed and prayed that God would save us and He did.”
Shadow Mountain has contracted with several hotels to temporarily house displaced families and provide for their needs. Hundreds of members signed up after church services Sunday morning, Nov. 2, to help with cleanup and other relief needs and as lay counselors and prayer warriors.
A nine-member team of Southern Baptist volunteers from New Mexico, meanwhile, is staffing a mobile kitchen sent from Texas to feed up to 2,000 meals a day to the community.
On Nov. 2, at 3:30 p.m. exactly a week after the wildfire took over the community, nearly 400 residents gathered in the park for a church service led by Jeremiah and other Shadow Mountain members followed by a free barbeque catered by Gino’s, a local restaurant.
“I don’t usually go to church but I wanted to come today,” said Marsha Snelling, a Crest resident whose home did not burn. “The singing is wonderful. I just wanted to be here.”
Snelling recalled hearing explosions of windows breaking and propane gas tanks exploding near her home before evacuating.
“It was really scary up here,” said Snelling, who has been volunteering her free time to fold clothes given away at the park. “I’m very blessed I still have a house.”
An official count was not taken, but at least one person prayed to receive Christ during the outdoor service. Others, meanwhile, turned to Christ during the two morning services held at the church.
“People are coming to Christ as a direct result of our ministering to them,” said John Gillette, Shadow Mountain men’s ministry director who is spearheading the relief efforts in Crest. “We’re not about the numbers but about being Jesus in the flesh to these people who have lost everything. … We want to meet their basic needs and show the love of Jesus in practical ways.
“We have seen many people recommit their lives to Christ during this time and come back to church,” Gillette added.
“There is a spiritual revival happening. God is at work.”
Gillette and other members of the church walked door to door in the Crest community after the late-October devastation, giving cash and praying with fire victims.
“I prayed with a woman who was staring dazed into the ashes of her home,” Gillette recounted. “We sat on a burned tree stump and went through John 14 which assured her of her salvation. I was able to give her $400 in cash and she was amazed we’d meet her needs so quickly.”
The church has given more than $100,000 in cash and gift certificates away in a week’s time. A collection of $20,000 was received Saturday, Nov. 1, during a benefit by comedian Ken Davis at the church.
“We don’t have unlimited resources … but we know a God who does,” Jeremiah said during the church service in the park. “We are going to stay here and help in any way we can. We’re here for awhile. You don’t have to go through this by yourself.”
Congressman Duncan Hunter, who represents the 52nd district of eastern and northern San Diego — who also lost his house in the fire — spoke during the church service.
“I know it’s against the rules for politicians to speak about God but this is kind of fitting since the great Christian faith is based on renewal and rebirth and that’s what’s going to happen here,” said Hunter, who attends Trinity Baptist Church in El Cajon.
Assemblyman Jay LaSuer also attended the event. “This is good to have here,” said LaSuer, who represents eastern San Diego. “Like the pastor said, I can’t imagine going through this without knowing Jesus.”
Kelli Cottrell is a freelance writer based in the San Bernardino, Calif., area. (BP) photos posted in the BP Photo Library at http://www.bpnews.net. Photo titles: HUGS UPON HUGS, RETELLING and BAR-B-CARING.