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Fires affect California UUs

California wildfires destroy more then 1,000 homes, including two belonging to Unitarian Universalist families.
By Donald E. Skinner

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Betsy and Roger Danley collect coats

Betsy and Roger Danley helped collect 87 coats for Sylmar fire victims on Nov. 23, the first of six Sunday coat drives by the UUs of Santa Clarita Valley. (Rick Kamlet)

Wildfires that destroyed more than 1,000 homes in Southern California last week took the homes of two families from the Unitarian Society of Santa Barbara.

Three separate wildfires, near Santa Barbara, in Los Angeles’ San Fernando Valley, and in northern Orange County, burned about 65 square miles. The last of the fires were brought under control November 19.

At Santa Barbara, the Rev. Aaron McEmrys said the two families who lost their homes are being supported by the congregation. Twenty to thirty other families from the congregation had to evacuate their homes until the fires were out.

“Our whole congregation came together beautifully,” he said. “Some members, including therapists and counselors, worked with the Red Cross. They provided a listening presence to folks who weren’t sure, when they went back to their neighborhood, if their houses would be standing or not.”

He said the fires, in addition to the economic stress already being felt in the region, have increased the anxiety among many people. “This is also the third fire in this area in 15 months. There’s a sense here that all the rules are changing. Southern California used to have one fire season a year. Now it always seems to be fire season. It can be really frightening and anxiety-provoking.”

McEmrys shared a story from the night the fire began. “The choir was rehearsing and I went to church to make sure they all knew about it. After I told them I went into our garden and you could look up and see a 150-foot wall of flame bearing down on the city. And then the power went out. I went back in the church and the choir had lit all of the candles and they were sitting there singing 'Silent Night' softly, like a prayer. It was the most beautiful prayer I could have imagined under the circumstances. That memory will stick with me forever, those choir members singing in a flickering pool of light.”

One fire destroyed nearly 500 homes in a mobile home park at Sylmar, 20 miles north of Los Angeles. At the UUs of Santa Clarita Valley in Newhall, Calif., the closest UU congregation to that fire, member Eve Bushman wanted to do something for all those who lost their homes. She and other church members decided to collect new or used winter coats. As of last week they had received more than 100, on the way to a goal of 600.

“Sometimes it feels like we can’t do anything when these disasters happen,” she said. “But Sylmar is only five miles from us. It’s part of our interconnected web of life. So we knew we had to do something. Someone suggested coats and we were off and running.”

In a sermon November 16, the Rev. Ricky Hoyt, Santa Clarita’s minister, said, “What does an event like these catastrophic fires of last weekend do to a person’s faith? What happens to a person's spirit when they watch their home go up in flames in an event the insurance company will call ‘an act of God?’ Where is God in the random suffering of every day, the small and the large tragedies?”

“An answer for Unitarian Universalists,” Hoyt said, “is that God is in the hands and hearts of people who work to prevent suffering when we can, people who respond to suffering as it’s happening to make it less, and people who rush in after the fact with comforting words and deeds. The Unitarian Universalist faith doesn't relieve us of responsibility because ‘God will provide,’ but requires our action because we are the help God provides.”

Bushman was inspired to collect coats in part because her husband, Eddie Bushman, is a Los Angeles City Fire Chief in charge of disaster preparedness.

Eve Bushman said people can send new or used coats, or checks to purchase coats, to her at 23226 Agramonte Dr., Newhall, CA 91321. Checks can be made out to Goodwill Industries, which is working with the American Red Cross to distribute the coats. Added Bushman, “I’m hoping other congregations or youth groups might take up the challenge of helping us reach our goal.”

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