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Religious Communities Respond to California Wildfires

Religious communities across the nation said prayers for both their brethren in the line of fire and all victims of wildfires raging across southern California, while ministering to those in need.

The fires, stretching from Santa Barbara to San Diego, have destroyed about 500 homes and 100 commercial properties so far. Among them was Malibu Presbyterian Church, a 450-member congregation whose 60-year-old house of worship was engulfed in flames after it was evacuated.

“That’s the really good news, that everyone’s out and safe,” Youth Pastor Eric Smith told the Washington Post.

Presbyterian Disaster Assistance arrived on the scene Monday to begin working with the Malibu congregation.

The Presbytery of the Pacific carried updates about the church, including a temporary church Web site.

The disaster gave the church’s pastor, Greg Hughes, a platform in national media including the Los Angeles Times to share the Christian faith.

“You know, we’re an Easter Faith people,” Hughes said on Fox News. “So you know on Friday, it looked like things were bleak for Jesus, but we saw that Jesus rose again. And our church is a resurrection church. We’ll gather again. We’re going to regroup again.”

A Catholic church on an Indian reservation was another casualty. Catholic News Service reported St. Bartholomew Church on the Rincon Reservation and several homes on the reservation were destroyed in one of the fires.

Religious leaders called on church members to pray and give money for disaster relief.

Katharine Jefferts Schori, presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church in the United States and the first woman primate in the Anglican communion, offered “deep concern and heartfelt prayers” in a letter to the Diocese of San Diego.

Los Angeles-area United Methodist Bishop Mary Ann Swenson called in upon “the power of our connectional system” to help.

“As fires rage across Southern California, I hear the psalmist proclaiming, ‘God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in time of trouble,'” Swenson said in United Methodist News Service. “God is indeed our refuge, but the work of compassion is ours to do: now is the time to step up and be the Church.”

The Council for American-Islamic Relations urged American mosques to offer special Islamic prayers, called Salatul Istisqa, traditionally offered during times of drought.

“Americans of all faiths need to offer spiritual assistance to the courageous firefighters who are battling these deadly fires,” said CAIR Executive Director Nihad Awad. Awad also asked mosques in wildfire areas to offer shelter to fire victims and that financial aid for victims be sent to the American Red Cross.

The United Church of Christ National Disaster Ministries office set a fund-raising goal of $100,000 to assist with long term recovery.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints sent four truckloads of relief supplies–including food, water, blankets, cots and hygiene kits–to help residents forced to evacuate their homes. Ten LDS meeting houses were opened as temporary shelters.

The president of the Southern Baptist Convention North American Mission Board pledged assistance and asked Southern Baptists to be in prayer.

“Our thoughts and prayers are with the residents of California as they endure this tragic fire and the devastation it’s caused,” NAMB President Geoff Hammond said in Baptist Press. “Please be in prayer as well for the local churches as they minister and the Southern Baptist disaster relief volunteers who are being activated.”

Three California Southern Baptist disaster relief feeding teams were called up Monday, Oct. 22, in initial response to the wildfires.

Only weeks after completing recovery efforts from the 2003 Southern California wildfires, the Salvation Army mobilized 15 mobile canteen units, including two at an evacuation site at Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego, where some 10,000 refugees are seeking shelter.

The Salvation Army is also providing cots, cups and personal care kits to responders and survivors, along with emotional and spiritual care.

“Our primary goal is responding to the immediate needs of the thousands of evacuees and relief workers in the area,” said Lt. Col Doug O’Brien. “Over the long-term, we expect to have many thousands of people who will need our help with long-term recovery to rebuild their homes and lives.”

The Evangelical Covenant Church, a Chicago-based multi-ethnic denomination founded in the 1880s by Swedish immigrants, set up a special Covenant World Relief fund to help low-income residents who are being affected by the fires.

Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.