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Sparking Compassion in Spokane: Area Churches Illuminate Hope in Wildfire Aftermath

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Sparking Compassion in Spokane: Area Churches Illuminate Hope in Wildfire Aftermath

News Story by Cindy Hval | FāVS News

In August, as a pair of wildfires blazed simultaneously across the West Plains and North Spokane County, community members scrambled to help those affected by the devastation.

Faith communities were at the forefront, opening church doors to serve as temporary shelters, offering blankets, clothing and food. The reasons behind these acts of service are often deeply rooted in theology.

The Faith that Jesus Modeled

Roger Hudson, South African native and retired pastor of Covenant United Methodist Church in North Spokane, said helping those in crisis is fundamental to faith.

However, he quibbles with the “r” word.

“I’m not retired,” he said. “I’m just retired from the institution!”

During his years as a Methodist minister, he witnessed the work of the humanitarian relief and development arm of The United Methodist Church, the United Methodist Committee on Relief – (UMCOR). For him, aiding those in need is just one part of the theological picture.

“As we respond to natural disasters, we also need to work to reverse some of the causes,” he said. “We know with climate change, these disasters will escalate.”

Locally, Hudson’s congregation has partnered with Family Promise of Spokane, raised funds for school fees for children in a Lutheran congregation in El Salvador, and planted a community garden. They’ve also intentionally welcomed members of the LGBTQ community.

 “John Wesley (Methodism founder) said Christians need to be involved in acts of piety, acts of mercy and acts of justice and acts of compassion,” said Hudson. “This is the faith that Jesus modeled.”

A Congregation in the Evacuation Zone

Brady Bates, West Spokane stake president of The Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-day Saints, witnessed that faith in action.

“We have a congregation in Medical Lake with about 260 families,” Bates said. “Approximately, 50% of them were displaced.”

Members of congregations across the area quickly mobilized to help.

“Our church on 29th opened its doors to anyone in need — not just members,” he said. “They partnered with the Red Cross and had 60 cots set up with blankets. People just came together.”

That response is intrinsic to their beliefs.

“It’s part of our faith — our calling,” said Bates. “God blesses us, so we need to bless others.”

Indeed, The Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-day Saints has a well-organized emergency response program.

As stated on their website, “The Church provides relief in situations of civil unrest, famine, and natural disasters by providing short-term resources such as food, water, shelter, clothing, medical supplies, and hygiene kits.”

This response, coordinated under the direction of local leadership, is often in conjunction with local and international relief organizations. Members help by distributing supplies and participating in cleanup.

“Of our over 100 families displaced by the Gray fire, only 19 didn’t immediately have a place to go,” said Bates. “I was touched by the response inside and outside the church. Most remarkably some families lost everything, but they were right there cleaning up properties of people they didn’t even know when there was a lot of work to be done at their own places.”

For Bates, the reason for that kind of selflessness is simple.

“We want to minister like the Savior would,” he said. “Service is the very fiber of what it means to be Christ-like.”

Help in the Aftermath

elk wildfire
Elk Strong banner added to Elk’s welcome sign / Photo by Cassy Benefield (FāVS News)

When the Oregon fire erupted near Elk, Washington, Colbert Presbyterian Church was in a unique position to help in the aftermath.

Established 26 years ago, the congregation has long gravitated to those in need.

“When we started building we asked how we could be a blessing to this community,” said co-pastor Eric Peterson. “We discovered there was a significant pocket of poverty in North Spokane.”

In concert with several area churches, they established the New Hope Resource Center on the Colbert Presbyterian campus. They also partner with the North County Food Pantry in Elk, Washington.

Fourteen other congregations are part of this coalition of care.

“At New Hope, we help with utilities, give gas vouchers, and help with transportation and chore services,” Peterson said. “When a natural disaster strikes we have the infrastructure to respond to long-term recovery efforts.”

As well as helping with food, clothing and other necessities, the New Hope Resource Center has social workers on site.

“Many of our clients were impacted by the fire,” he said. “We are now set up to be an evacuation center.”

Their commitment to help is ongoing.

“In the spring Team Rubicon (veteran-led humanitarian organization) will headquarter here to do tree removal.”

wildfire aftermath
A section of the Oregon Road wildfire’s aftermath in Elk, Washington / Photo by Cassy Benefield (FāVS News)

In addition, the Presbyterian Disaster Assistance program awarded Colbert Presbyterian a $5,000 grant to give to New Hope as they continue to serve the community’s needs.

“We don’t separate the gospel from humanity,” said Peterson. “Grace moves toward need and brokenness and meets whatever the need is.”

Boots on the Ground

Possibly no church has more experience with helping in times of crisis than The Salvation Army.

As part of the National Incident Management System, the Salvation Army along with the American Red Cross, are usually the first groups to respond during a national disaster. Their well-established Disaster Relief Services program has the expertise and resources to mobilize quickly.

“We cover every zip code across the nation,” explained Captain David Cain, who leads the Spokane Corps of the Salvation Army with his wife, Kelly. “We are already boots on the ground.”

During the August wildfires, they deployed two mobile kitchen units, one to each fire location. They served meals to first responders and those being evacuated.

salvation army wildfire recovery
One of the mobile kitchen units operated by the Salvation Army / Photo contributed by Salvation Army

“We were assessing the need right out of the gate,” said Cain. “We partnered with Redemption Church in Medical Lake and Country Church of the Open Bible in Elk to provide relief for anyone being evacuated.”

Whether it was a stuffed animal for a traumatized kid, water for thirsty emergency workers, or clothing vouchers for those who lost everything, the Salvation Army hit the ground running.

The Recovery Process Still Going

After the crisis passed, the organization continues to play a vital role in the recovery process.

“The Salvation Army has the contract for long-term recovery efforts,” Cain said. “We’ve hired four case managers, two for each area. They are full-time employees, assisting every family registered. It’s a two-year commitment based on need and funding. We’re part of a group that meets with other agencies to discuss continuing needs.”

Like the above-mentioned churches, the root of the Salvation Army’s humanitarian response is integral to its core values.

Cain said the church’s inception was a direct response to urgent social needs in England — unfair working conditions and poverty.

“An essential part of our mission is to sit and listen and be present,” said Cain. “The heart of what we do is to be present in some of the darkest places in our community and offer our services to those who would never think they’d need them.”

Cindy Hval
Cindy Hvalhttp://cindyhval.com
Cindy Hval is the author of "War Bonds: Love Stories from the Greatest Generation," and has been a  columnist and correspondent for The Spokesman-Review newspaper since 2006. In addition, her stories have been published in numerous magazines and anthologies including 12 volumes of the "Chicken Soup For the Soul" series. Cindy is the mother of four sons, Nana of twin grandsons and is owned by two cats, also boys. She and her husband, Derek, recently celebrated their 37th anniversary. Her idea of heaven is a room full of books and all the time in the world to read them.

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