Rebuilding faith: Wildfires provide tough test of religious beliefs for those who lost homes
On a recent visit to an evacuation center in Chico, Christian pastors Jon Maves and Billy Andre saw familiar despair in the eyes of those who fled from the Camp fire’s deadly flames.
Maves and Andre, Santa Rosa residents who both lost homes in the Tubbs wildfire in October 2017, resisted sharing their own stories. The destruction, the loss, the grief in Butte County was so monumental, all they could do was listen.
After a year of struggles that tested their faith, the two religious men had much to share and teach. But they knew it wasn’t the right time. People were confused, in a state of shock.
“I really just listened to people,” said Andre, pastor at The Bridge church in Santa Rosa, which also was destroyed by the Tubbs fire.
“I felt like sometimes, the church can be too quick to rush to hope, telling people, ‘Hey, we’re all going to get through this,’?” he said. “Sometimes, we don’t allow people to simply grieve and mourn.”
For many faithful, cataclysmic events like the Camp and Tubbs fires - the two most destructive wildfires in California history - often challenge their belief in God. Some become angry or disillusioned and struggle to make sense of the indiscriminate loss of life and property.
In the prolonged aftermath of last year’s wildfires that devastated Sonoma County, faith, in different forms, has played a key role in the rebuilding of the local community. Even as communities across the state continue to be leveled by similar and even greater infernos in the case of the still-burning Camp fire, some who suffered great loss last year say their faith abides.
There may be days when it’s stretched thin or it feels like it’s spent. But it’s still there, guiding efforts to rebuild homes and lives, no less important than nails, wood and rebar.
“My faith has often waned, but that’s part of faith. It’s not a moment that you decide that it’s done. It’s something that you have to keep coming back to,” said Maves, the pastor at City Alliance Church in Santa Rosa. “Picture the ocean, it’s not just a wave, it’s waves. ... Sometimes, the wave is really tangible. Fire, that’s a wave. Sometimes, the wave is you wake up in the morning and you don’t have any hope.”
Just before the Tubbs fire struck Santa Rosa overnight on Oct. 8, 2017, Maves was at a crossroads in his life. The Wisconsin native, whose parents were missionaries with the Christian and Missionary Alliance, had been living in Sonoma County for about 15 years. After “testing the waters” for about two years, Maves was planning to devote his time and efforts on becoming a pastor around the end of October a year ago.
“For me, it was a season of anticipation and excitement,” he said. “But the fire destroyed my life.”
Maves had been renting a home with his wife and three kids on Amanda Place in Coffey Park for 12 years. The young family found themselves competing against thousands of other families looking for a place to live, at the mercy of a county rental market eager to take advantage. Maves said it seemed like there was always someone willing to throw another $30,000 or more on top of the asking price for a new house. Finding a rental home seemed just as hard.
He said he started to feel a real “sense of homelessness” that began chipping away at his role as a husband and father. With no options to buy, he said he decided to “go big or go home.”
“If renting was going to be a miracle, why not ask for a home to own,” he said.
In early November, Maves said he and his family looked at a fixer-upper near Franklin Park. He said the house was in disrepair and had been neglected for years, but the family had a feeling it was “going to be God’s provision for us.”
In a day’s time, Maves and his family saw the house and met with the real estate agent to crunch some numbers. On a piece of paper, his youngest daughter had drawn two pictures. On one side, she drew a house on fire with the words, “Worst Day Ever.” On the other side, she drew a house that represented their new home.
The real estate agent took that picture to share with the owners of the home, who were expected to make a final decision on all offers, and by “6:30 that night, our offer was approved,” Maves said.
Now, they were faced with the task of paying a mortgage and repairing the house they bought that had been neglected for years.
“At that time, I really felt that faith rose up and I knew that if this was going to be God’s provision for us, that he was going to provide a way through it,” he said.
For some Jewish people, questioning authority, including the role God plays in the universe, is an important part of their faith. That’s true for some members of the Congregation Shomrei Torah, a Reform synagogue in east Santa Rosa.