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.

Reaffirming community

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.

Rabbi George Gittleman, the Shomrei Torah religious leader, said the 2017 fires “sorely tested” his own faith, and wiped away any notion he had that “God is like Santa Claus,” granting people what they need and want. It was something he already knew on an intellectual level but came to understand more profoundly this past year.

“While the fire was hard on my faith in that sense, it was very affirming of what it means to be in community,” Gittleman said. “We saw the blessings of community, the benefits of community ... of having a traditional structure to utilize and rely on during challenging times.”

Gittleman said many are now “triggered and upset” by smoke coming from other communities north in Butte County experiencing the ever-expanding horrors of wildfire.

“We’re not out of the woods,” he said. “We need to learn to live reasonably healthily with a new level of fear and anxiety - that’s a spiritual and emotional challenge.”

He said the realization that “God isn’t Santa Claus doesn’t mean God is not there.”

“What it requires one (to do) is to reimagine God in other ways,” he said. “For example, for me, I see God in the faces of other people and our ability to respond to the needs of the ‘Other.’?”

He said he sees God in the call to learn to live together, where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.

“I feel less alone when God is in my life,” he said. “I feel the ability to be connected and not isolated. It’s a way to open your heart to the universe and feel like the universe is there for you as well.”

Larry and Judy Carlin, members of Congregation Shomrei Torah, came to understand that after the Tubbs fire engulfed their home in Santa Rosa’s Fountaingrove neighborhood last year.

Neither of them are “religious” and faith in God didn’t play a large role in the past 13 months.

Larry Carlin said he grew up with an orthodox Jewish grandmother and attended Hebrew school. But at 16, he became an atheist.

“We never belonged to a congregation until we moved up here,” he said, adding that after speaking to Gittleman, he and his wife were drawn to the congregation’s progressive work in social action. “What they were doing spoke to me.”

Their younger daughter and her family, who lived on Fir Ridge Drive in Fountaingrove, also lost their home in the Tubbs fire. Following the fire, the area’s Jewish community and many others provided an abundance of support.

Food came up from a Marin County synagogue, and Shomrei Torah’s social action committee launched a “meal train” that provided meals to fire survivors several times a week, Carlin said.

“It actually felt like physical support,” he said.

The Carlins embrace the idea of faith as community and the Jewish concept of Tikkun Olam, acts that repair the world. Along with programs promoting immigrant, gun control and LGBTQ rights, the Carlins and their social action group also have focused on climate change this year.

“One of the main precepts of Judaism is acknowledging that the world is not perfect,” she said, “We’re here to try to do some repair work.”

Rebuilding membership

Last year’s fires were a big blow to First Presbyterian Church on Pacific Avenue in Santa Rosa. Dale Flowers, the pastor, said 50 church families and another 10 families with kids enrolled in Presbyterian Preschool lost homes. The church normally has about 600 members and “friends” who attend regularly.

“Our attendance is down a little bit, but by and large it’s strong,” he said. “The health and vitality of the church is strong.”

For many who lost houses or were evacuated, the church became “home,” he said.

During the fires, First Presbyterian remained open 24 hours a day, serving three daily meals and offering some a place to sleep and, for many others, a place to tell their stories.

“It was just such a blessing - you didn’t feel alone, you just felt supported,” said Lesley Van Dordrecht, who lost her home in Santa Rosa’s Coffey Park neighborhood where she and her husband, Mike, lived. “Especially the church staff, it really did feel like they were God’s representatives.”

In a recent blog on the church’s website, Van Dordrecht recounts those days after the Tubbs fire: “Every time we stopped by, it was like getting a hug from God. We could charge our phones, use the computer, printer, copier and fax, eat lunch, have coffee, cry, laugh, receive hugs from volunteers and other evacuees, and generally feel supported. Since we were staying in Sebastopol, having a place in Santa Rosa to do these things was critical.”

Van Dordrecht said she and her husband, both retired educators, have been Christians since their teens and are well-versed in theology and they long since wrestled with “God’s will and mysteries.”

“I didn’t feel singled out, because it was such a massive disaster,” she said. “We were a little bit in shock in the beginning, but if I’m with my husband, I’m at home.”

Profound surrender

Billy Andre, the pastor at The Bridge church, said his faith helped him through moments that overwhelmed last year. He said he reached a “deeper place of surrender,” accepting that sometimes he wasn’t in control of his circumstances.

“That led me to really have to trust and believe that God was going to take care of my family and God was going to take care of me,” he said.

He said he feels for those in Butte County who are going through similar and worse dealing with the life-changing Camp fire. He recalls the despair he saw among fire survivors at a Walmart parking lot in Chico only days after the Camp fire started on Nov. 8.

His heart still raw from his own fire-ravaging experience last year, Andre opened it to those who fled the flames that destroyed the town of Paradise.

“One person said, ‘I wanted to put people on my shoulders and carry them,’ but he couldn’t,” Andre said.

“A lot of people are probably angry with God and are asking why is this happening right now,” he said, adding that answers will come later.

“Our role (in Chico) was to weep with those who were weeping and to mourn with those who were mourning,” he said.

You can reach Staff Writer Martin Espinoza at 707-521-5213 or On Twitter @renofish

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