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Small church beacon of hope amid CA fires

MIDDLETOWN, Calif. (BP) — The Lord is using Southern Baptist Disaster Relief to share the Gospel in a tangible way among the survivors of California wildfires that have killed six people and burned more than 150,000 acres of land, pastor Michael Ent told Baptist Press.

The largest of two fires currently threatening populated communities, the Valley Fire, seemingly parted as it neared Ent’s pastorate, First Baptist Church in Middletown, sparing the two-story wooden building. The church’s membership of 40 is using the experience to encourage fellow survivors.

“We’re all survivors honestly,” Ent said. “Every one of us is blessed because the loss of life is so minimal. So in that respect we all recognize we’re going through this together, whether our structures are standing or not.”

A Middletown community member who was suffering from survivor guilt, as her home was spared, came to realize that her home was left standing as a blessing to the community, not her alone, Ent said.

“It dawned on her that the value of that property standing is not just for her. She knows that she’s going to get to use her house and her household, her home, to honor the Lord. And that’s what happening,” Ent said. “But we’ve been kind of hearing some miraculous reports about some of our membership who, their home is still there. It’s kind of like the church building. Everything around the home is burned to a crisp and their home is standing.

“I don’t know what the rhyme or the reason is, but the Lord gives and the Lord takes away. Blessed be the name of the Lord. That’s where we are and we’re giving God the glory for our property being there. And it’s pretty clear to us we get to use it for His glory. And what a privilege that is.”

First Baptist Church is using its lot to host shower and laundry units, and a kitchen that may serve up to 5,000 or 10,000 meals a day for survivors of the Valley Fire, California Southern Baptist Disaster Relief Ministries (CSBDRM) Coordinator Don Hargis told BP.

The Valley Fire has killed four people and injured four firefighters, has destroyed 1,910 structures, and although it is 90 percent contained as of today (Sept. 25), is still threatening 2,953 structures, according to a Cal Fire Department of Forestry and Fire Protection incident report.

Other Southern Baptist Disaster Relief units are serving survivors of the smaller fire, the Butte Fire in Amador & Calaveras Counties, with a kitchen serving 2,500 meals a day in San Andreas. Nearby Glory Bound Fellowship (Southern Baptist), a county designated evacuation center in Burson, is hosting a laundry unit from the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma, and a shower unit. Glory Bound is serving as a distribution site and shelter, where many of the meals being prepared in San Andreas are being served, Hargis said.

The Butte Fire has killed two civilians and injured another, has destroyed 475 residences and 343 outbuildings, and has burned 70,868 acres, according to Cal Fire figures. While the fire was 93 percent contained as of today, it is still threatening 6,400 structures, Cal Fire said.

More than 25 Southern Baptist volunteers are working at each of the churches serving survivors, Hargis said. And those numbers will increase, he noted, as SBDR units are able to help homeowners clean their lots after the fires are totally extinguished.

Survivors are said to be in good spirits.

“Their mood is high because they’re getting a lot of help, not so much attention, just help,” Hargis said. “It’s very constant. So there’s a lot of encouragement.”

Supplies including water and clothing are plentiful. Glory Bound Fellowship was no longer taking donations of clothing and supplies, but distributing those already received from within and outside the county, according to the church website.

Chaplains are at both church disaster relief sites, Hargis said, and all volunteers are trained witnesses.

“We just want to be a witness. We want to be a witness to these survivors who have lost a lot. We want to help them to begin a new normal in many cases, because their old lives could be just ended and now they need a new normal,” Hargis said. “Those are things we want to try and help them to do by accepting Christ if they don’t know Him, or by increasing their faith in Christ if they do know Him.”

As first responders and other volunteers leave, Ent said, monetary donations will be needed to continue to help survivors. Donations to CSBDRM may be made online at public.serviceu.com. Checks made payable to the California Southern Baptist Convention and noted for Disaster Relief can be sent to 678 E. Shaw, Fresno CA 93710. Donations go toward helping volunteers with travel and meals, and assessment and cleanup of destroyed properties.

Hargis is also requesting prayer, as is Ent, whose church had been praying Ephesians 3:20-21 when the Butte Fire began Sept. 9, and the Valley Fire Sept. 12.

“Pray, pray, pray, pray, pray,” Ent said. “That would be the first 10 requests I would make, because we have been praying that God would move in our town in a big way. We’ve been praying Ephesians 3:20 and 21. I don’t think we were quite anticipating something like this. But God certainly, in the aftermath we’re seeing His presence working in and through us just in keepiing with Ephesians 3:20. We’re begging God to move.”

Specifically, believers can pray that the church and volunteers would be good listeners and have clarity in moments when they’re called on to share God’s word, Ent said. Such a tragedy can open survivors’ hearts to the Gospel, he said.

“People are done with their own sovereignty and they’re willing to look at and consider someone who’s stronger than them and that’s clearly the Lord,” Ent said. “We’re praying for revival. [That] the Lord would use this to just win people to Him, and to allow us to be a part of it is just such an honor.”

To volunteer call 559-256-0855.