Given a half-hour deadline to abandon Williams Lake and flee encroaching wildfires on July 15, Rev. Paul Lomavatu joined the bumper-to-bumper exodus stretching nearly 300 kilometres to Kamloops. But within days, the pastor of Cariboo Community Christian Reformed Church was back on the nearly-empty streets painting welcome home signs.
“The soul had left the city. People give life to community,” says Lomavatu, who is wrestling with how to make Williams Lake feel like home again. “Nobody has done this before. I wish there was a job description.”
Many of the 145 wildfires burning across British Columbia have been ravaging the southern interior since July 7 in the second-worst fire season on record. As of Aug. 8, wildfires had scorched 6,060 square kilometres, destroying 300 homes and outbuildings. In mid-July, 40,000 people were evacuated or on alert, including 20,000 in the Williams Lake area in the heart of the fire zone.
By the time the alert was issued on July 10, the 11 churches of the Williams Lake Pastors Fellowship were ready to act.
“We’ve really been walking in unity. We’re just one church in Williams Lake,” says Rev. Jeremy Vogt, pastor at Cariboo Bethel Church, who coordinated meals for RCMP members arriving just as restaurants were shutting their doors.
After the fires started, Sunday service was at half capacity, says Lomavatu, but people showed up in full force to make lunches for the RCMP.
“People didn’t know what to do. They headed home to wait. When the opportunity came to volunteer, they jumped,” he says. “The church was there being the presence of Christ.”
Pastoral care ‘essential’
When the evacuation order came on July 15, everything ground to a halt. Vogt says dinner went in the trash and food was left to rot. “I filled a full-sized commercial garbage bin from floor to lid with food when I got back.”
But it wasn’t long before they picked up where they left off. Along with essential service providers, pastors were asked to return before the evacuation order was lifted.
Only eight people – six of them pastors – met for worship that Sunday.
“There were less than 10 of us, but we sang like 50. It was a wonderful time of unity and meeting humbly at the foot of the cross. God was worshipped in Williams Lake that Sunday,” says Rev. Chris Harder, pastor of Williams Lake Alliance Church.
While Lomavatu painted welcome signs, others took out trash, cleaned toilets, mowed lawns and watered gardens, did laundry for the regional district, and set up a donation centre.
Harder offered encouragement at the Cariboo Regional District offices and on a three-day RCMP ride-along.
“People were running crazy long hours. Their homes were threatened along with all of ours. I just made myself available, holding out my hand to see who took it,” he says. “By the same token, people are looking out for each other. It’s not just churches. It’s Christians getting out there and joining themselves to whatever is going on in the name of Jesus.”
At the Resiliency Centre, churches are side-by-side with social services. Vogt hopes those relationships last. “It’s one of those moments a Christian prays about. Lord, just put us where you want us to be to give you glory,” he says.
But the crisis isn’t over. The order was lifted on July 27, but Williams Lake is still on alert.
“People are coming back to a place still burning. They’re not sure if they’ll wake up tomorrow to another order to leave. The fires are like a sleeping monster,” says Lomavatu. “How do we pastor our people and the community in that context?”
Churches can help knit an uncertain community back together by rethinking discipleship, equipping congregations to reach out, listen and pray, says Lomavatu.
“I believe the church exists in a community not only for itself but for the benefit of the whole. Even when it’s hard, we serve. That’s what we’re called to do.”
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