ShoutLaughLove: stories of the broken, beautiful church

so much shouting, so much laughter
Linking with somuchshoutingsomuchlaughter.blogspot.com tomorrow on the topic, “the broken, beautiful church…”

It was a strange afternoon for November. The air was sparky – almost tangible electricity all around as 11 women gathered in my living room for a brain-storming session about how we as a church might be ‘near to the broken-hearted.’ We had a good, productive, prayerful time together, deciding on an evening event with a guest speaker as precursor to some Sunday morning learning and sharing opportunities.

As the last woman headed out to the driveway I walked with her and said, “I don’t like this weather! It’s hot, really hot for 6:00 p.m., and the wind is blowing so fiercely. It always makes me nervous somehow.” I glanced up at the foothills just above our home as I said these words, feeling uncomfortable, even a little frightened. Of what, I did yet know.
Within 15 minutes, my phone rang. A neighbor calling to say that there was a fire racing down the canyons above us and we would have about an hour or two to evacuate. We ate our dinner standing up and gathered together photographs, important documents, art work and loaded both our cars and a nephew’s, who had come by to help. We drove 15 minutes south to stay with our son and his family and began to pray in earnest for all the people in our congregation who would be directly in ‘the line of fire’ as the evening progressed.

Perhaps it might be good to tell you that I was, at that time, the Associate Pastor for a congregation of about 350, worshipping in a beautiful new worship center directly in the line of the flames on the side of a Santa Barbara CA foothill. Our senior pastor had flown that morning to the east coast, where he would officiate at the memorial service for his wife’s mother and that meant that the major burden for decision making fell on the office staff and on me. And I was now a dozen miles away. We kept in touch by email through the night – until power outages made that difficult. We made phone calls, sent text messages, watched the news in stupefied horror as the flames raced through entire neighborhoods – neighborhoods where people we knew and loved had homes and memories and precious possessions.

The next day, we held an emergency staff meeting in the home of our bookkeeper, who lived in a non-evacuation area. A few key lay leaders also joined us, as we prayed and planned and brainstormed. “How can we gather?” we wondered. “Worship is at the center of who we are as God’s people on Cold Spring Road. And Loving One Another is our second greatest mandate – how can we do that well in the midst of crisis and loss?”

One friend called a local country club. “Yes,” they said, “you can use our space for your Sunday morning gathering.” Several of us laid out a liturgy that allowed space for grieving in the midst of praise. We planned to share stories, without a sermon, and beginning that Sunday morning, we began to provide material help to those in our midst who were bereft.
In total, 20 families suffered loss. Fourteen of those lost everything they owned. And ALL of us came together that Sunday morning – we sang, we cried, we prayed, we loved each other, and we thanked God profusely that no life was lost. There were new stuffed animals for each child who had lost every treasured toy. There was Benevolence money that day, one check per family – to help buy groceries, toothpaste, toys – no restrictions on usage. There were plates put out for extra compassion funds – and more poured in from distant members, even from sister congregations in our denomination. Two weeks later, at our first Advent Supper, we gathered donated Christmas decorations from retailers and congregants and put out an abundant supply of lovely things, with shopping bags to fill for each burned-out family.

Within 24 hours of our hastily put-together worship gathering, we were back into our church facilities – graciously spared any serious damage. My husband and I moved back into our home, no damage there either. And over the next few weeks, I watched in amazement and grateful awe as people cared for one another with grace and wisdom.

One woman, a neighbor whose house survived but needed some major repair, began a small group for her sisters who were left with nothing. We opened the doors of our church campus to a local neighborhood association so they could gather insurance information and begin the long, tedious process of jumping through city and county regulation-hoops. Many of those new friends joined us at our weekly Advent Suppers and spoke of how loved and welcomed they felt. It was a terrible, wonderful time in the life of our congregation. God was palpably present in the midst of calamity and terror – and the church was at her beautifully broken best.

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Comments

  1. Diana, thank you for sharing this. What a picture of community and filling up where others lack. It IS so good to hear about God’s people supplying one another’s needs.

  2. Oops that was me. Silly iPod.

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