ESCONDIDO, Calif. — Gilbert Oropeza straddled the side of the white 18-wheeler, guiding it past rows of palm trees and into the parking lot of the North County church.
Almost as soon as the truck stopped, volunteers from churches all over California unloaded its cargo — shovels, wheelbarrows, cleaning supplies and ready-to-eat meals. Within minutes, three pickups owned by members of the Fallbrook, Calif., congregation were full of supplies and ready to go. Clipboard in hand, North County member Sarah Madruga kept a careful inventory of what was going where.
Nashville, Tenn.-based Churches of Christ Disaster Relief Effort sent the tractor-trailer to the San Diego area after massive fires destroyed about 1,400 homes, claimed at least seven lives and forced the evacuation of more than 300,000 residents. For Oropeza, a deacon of the El Cajon Boulevard church in San Diego, destroyed about 1,400 homes and forced more than 500,000 people to evacuate.
More than 15 Churches of Christ are assisting in relief efforts, said Oropeza, a deacon at the El Cajon Boulevard church in San Diego who volunteered to coordinate the response.
“Everybody left their tags, their labels, at thecurb,” he said. “We came in as just Christian brothers trying to helpother people out.”
The late-October fires came four years afterthe largest fires in California’s history destroyed 3,640 homes. Asfirefighters battled those blazes, John Leggett, minister for the RavenStreet church in San Diego, called area church leaders and urged themto work together in relief efforts.
The response to the 2003 fires “was like a magnet,” Leggett said. “It just drew the congregations together.”
Johnand Betsy Stephens, members of the Sunrise church in San Diego,shoveled ash and cleaned homes after the 2003 fires. “We really didn’tthink we would see this again in our lifetime,” Betsy Stephens said asshe and Sunrise members loaded cleaning supplies at the North Countychurch.
A dozen members of the Davis Park church traveled 11hours from Modesto, Calif., to help with clean-up in Ramona, northeastof San Diego. Fires destroyed 850 homes there.
Hilltop Rescueand Relief, overseen by the Hilltop Community Church of Christ in ElSegundo, Calif., is coordinating the clean-up, housing volunteers inthe building of the 25-member Ramona church.
After HurricaneKatrina, Davis Park members worked with Hilltop Rescue in Slidell, La.,shoveling muck and distributing Bibles. Dr. Glen Villanueva spent mostof his time in Louisiana treating other relief workers.
The experience made church members eager to help their fellow Californians after the fires, Villanueva said.
Wearingthe steel-toed boots she bought for a Hilltop mission to Slidell, NorthCounty member Denise Karnes loaded crates of Coca-Cola onto a waitingpickup truck. Compared to Katrina, the San Diego fires produced “fewerhorror stories,” she said, but the losses were no less real. ‘WE WOKE UP TO FLAMES’
Afteryears of renting, Jim and Paris Noyes made the first mortgage paymenton their new home in San Diego’s prosperous Rancho Bernardoneighborhood. On Sunday night, Oct. 21, the members of the NorthernHills church saw news reports about wildfires 130 miles away in Malibuand hoped that people there would be OK.
The next morning “wewoke up to flames,” Jim Noyes said. “I went out the door to work andthere were 150-foot flames. Everybody’s home was on fire. People werescreaming.”
The couple and their son, 15-year-old Gunnar, fledwith their pets and the clothes on their backs. “The scariest part wasgetting in our truck and wondering if we were going to get out, becausethere were trees falling across the road,” Jim Noyes said.
Richardand Jayne Schirato and their twin girls, 10-year-old Katie and Sarah,also fled their Rancho Bernardo home as the fires approached. Flamingembers fell on their car as they sat in traffic. Three hours later,they reached their congregation, the Canyon View church in San Diego.
“Peoplewere already getting lunch ready,” Richard Schirato said. Other churchmembers were watering the hillside in case the flames approached thechurch building. The Canyon View church housed 40 people during theevacuation.
About 25 miles north in Fallbrook, church membersJeff and Kim Seaman packed their four sons and six poodles into theirtruck as the flames approached. The family joined other evacuees in theparking lot of a casino until about 4 a.m. Monday, when police orderedthem to evacuate again.
Stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic, thefamily watched as flames came “spilling down the mountain like lava,”Kim Seaman said. She grabbed her cell phone and called Clyde Antwine,missionary in residence at Oklahoma Christian University, where theSeamans’ oldest child, Britnie, is a student. She asked Antwine to lookafter Britnie if they didn’t make it.
She also asked 12-year-oldJevon to start praying. Jevon methodically thanked God for theirfamily, their home and their blessings.
“Here we were in thepit of the fire and my son was saying a prayer of thanksgiving,” KimSeaman said. “It was very touching, although I was thinking, ‘Get tothe part where we get saved!’”
The Seamans escaped the flames, and eventually returned to find their house undamaged.
Butfor the Noyeses and Schiratos, little but ashes remained. Though theylost their homes, both families said that their churches haveoverwhelmed them with money, clothes, food and support.
“Weshould see it more often, but this is when we see the image of God inpeople … overflowing and heartfelt,” Paris Noyes said. MORE VOLUNTEERS NEEDED
The church families, along with many others in Southern California, are rebuilding their lives with insurance money.
Butsome fire victims are migrant workers. Others are uninsured. TheFederal Emergency Management Agency will provide relief, but until thatrelief comes, many Californians are in limbo, said Roger Moon, outreachand involvement minister for the Canyon View church.
At arecent meeting of relief groups, California state Sen. DennisHollingsworth asked for workers to oversee a camp for fire victims inBarrett Junction, east of San Diego. Representatives of Churches ofChrist volunteered.
Mark and Laura Cremeans of Churches ofChrist Disaster Response Team are coordinating the camp. Additionalworkers from the ministry, overseen by the Melbourne, Fla., church,will assist. Members of the Chula Vista, Calif., church also plan tohelp — and to host worship services at the camp. Additional volunteersare needed, Laura Cremeans said.
Hollingsworth told The Christian Chronicle
that Churches of Christ “have stepped in to provide much-neededservices to the community — and in the process have really exemplifiedthe love of Christ.”
In Fallbrook, the Seamans and fellowmembers of their small congregation are distributing food and cleaningsupplies to families who lost their homes.
Few people inFallbrook know much about the church, which meets in a senior center asit struggles to raise money for a building, Jeff Seaman said.
Onefamily attended Sunday worship recently after receiving food fromchurch members. Jeff Seaman asked church members across SouthernCalifornia to pray for the couple.
“While helping those with needs is a high priority, it is even a higher priority to save lost souls,” he said.
CONTRIBUTIONSFOR FIRE RELIEF may be sent to: C.V. Church of Christ, 470 ‘L’ Street,Chula Vista, CA 91911. Make checks payable to “Church of Christ.”
VOLUNTEERSARE NEEDED to help church members coordinating a camp for fire victimsin Barrett Junction, east of San Diego. For more information, contactMark and Laura Cremeans of Churches of Christ Disaster Response Team at(937) 308-0035 (Mark) or (937) 308-2259 (Laura) or see www.churchesofchristdrt.org.