Tens of thousands of refugees from the Camp Fire will be spending Christmas with friends and family next week, many of them in Chico, Calif. The city has become a safe haven, not just for those burned-out individuals, but for several religious congregations, too.
In the last month, First Assembly Paradise and its sister in Chico, First Assembly, have blended together. Leaders of both churches run the services, including youth pastor Kyle Smith of Paradise and his family. They are currently living in a 26-foot trailer outside his brother-in-law's house in Chico.
"We just didn't know where our help was going to come from. But when I opened up my eyes the next day, all the phone calls we received, the funds that came through, the blessings that came in, I saw rivers in a desert place," Smith said, referencing the Book of Isaiah.
Isaiah 43:18-19 New International Version (NIV)
19: See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland.
The pews in Chico are packed now every Sunday, but Smith says they're all too aware of who's not there — or who's about to leave for good.
"The first couple of weeks we had more, but people have since had to move and relocate out of state, and the Bay Area, different places, just to have someplace safe to be and stay," Smith said. "We have phones. We have social media and we can stay connected that way, but it is hard not to see them like we did in the past."
More than $10,000 in gift cards and donations from other churches have rolled in, which the combo congregation intends to share widely.
Will First Assembly Paradise rebuild? That's the hope, two or three years from now.
"We don't have plans. We don't have a blueprint. One of these days! We don't know when, but it's coming," Smith said.
An 'open' building
There's no time limit to the welcome coming from Second Baptist Church Chico. For the last 12 years, Pastor Joseph Kiwovele has been good friends with Sam Walker, who leads two burned-out Paradise congregations: Harei Yeshua, a Messianic Jewish community, which meets on Saturdays, and First Baptist Church Paradise, which meets on Sundays now in conjunction with Second Baptist Chico.
"It was an organic thing. I told Pastor Sam, this building is an open building. As long as there is a need of it, it will be open," Pastor Kiwovele said, adding a thought common among Chico's faithful: They have an opportunity this holiday season to practice the spiritual values they believe in in the most practical way possible — by taking in congregations made homeless by the Camp Fire.
Walker says the support keeps coming, in remarkably thoughtful and directed ways. After finding out that he lost his home in the fire, Pastor Tim Rhul of Pleasant Valley Baptist Church raised money to buy Walker and another pastor two suits apiece. "This was very thoughtful, since we may be needing formal dress in the near future to preside over several memorials for church members that we have lost in the fire," says Walker.
"We are in a warm place. We are in a place that is still standing. We thank the Lord for that," Walker said as he launched into a recent Saturday service.
Referencing Psalm 37:25, Walker added: "I've been really blessed, and for me it's just reinforced the passage where it says 'I've never seen the righteous forsaken or their children begging bread.' Sometimes, our whole life gets rearranged, but He is still faithful."