Fire Victims Grieve, Pray, Rejoice in Sunday Worship

Post a Comment » Written on November 17th, 2008     
Filed under: News
SANTA BARBARA, CA (November 17, 2008) – Grief – but mostly gratitude and joy – permeated Montecito Covenant Church’s (MCC) first worship service since the devastating fire that destroyed homes and forced the congregation to meet offsite.

Twelve families were displaced when their homes were among the 100 destroyed by the fire, said associate pastor Diana Trautwein. Two other families also are unable to return to their homes, which were severely damaged. A 98-year-old member who had suffered a lengthy illness died while being evacuated. 

Fire oneOn Sunday, the church met at a local country club rented by a member. Attendance far surpassed anyone’s expectations.

The church had the facility set up with 200 chairs. “We have averaged about 400 to 420 during this fall, and because many Westmont students and other evacuees were scattered all over southern California, we saw no way to have many more than that 200 number,” Trautwein said.

The people kept coming, however, and by the end of the service, 350 people were present. Many of the students sat on the floor.

“We needed to be together in God’s presence to worship, mourn and give thanks,” Trautwein said.

During the service, the congregation heard from and ministered to the displaced families. “We offered prayers of praise for everything from firefighters to family and we heard stories from survivors – some tearful, all grateful,” Trautwein said. “We laid hands all around the room on those who had been burned out or suffered severe damage, and we offered prayers for them.”

Fire twoHowever, as the church was praying for the families, Trautwein learned she was going to have to cut the service short. The large turnout resulted in the attendees’ cars filling all of the facility’s parking lots. Vehicles were even parked alongside the road. The club needed the space.

Trautwein recalled, “As we were at about the two-thirds mark of our service, every head bowed, arms extended to touch those families who had lost so much, Lisa Holmlund, our student ministries pastor, snuck up to me at the podium and whispered, ‘They want us out of here, like right now!’ ”

“I begged for a few more minutes,” Trautwein said. Holmlund relayed the plea and returned to tell her, ‘Ten, max!’ ” People still were streaming in.

Leaders had set a table for communion, but that was out of the question due to the new time constraints, said Trautwein. She added that the overflow of people would have made serving difficult in any case.

Two more offerings also were scheduled – the regular offering and donations to the church’s Compassion Fund. It seemed there would be no time left for those, either.

Fire threeAs the congregation sang “Amazing Grace” a cappella, Trautwein instructed the ushers to prepare the offering baskets with quickly made signs that read “regular” and “compassion.” The ushers stationed themselves in the lobby, outside the gathering space.

The congregation closed the service singing the Doxology a cappella, this time standing around the room holding hands.

The church had already decided to use money from their Compassion Fund to issue $1,000 checks that morning to each of the families forced from their homes. As congregants left the service, they remembered their neighbors. They gave more to the fund than what had been disbursed.

Before the service, Trautwein said, “We listened to wonderful, bittersweet stories from several of our friends who had been through the valley of loss just hours before our gathering. There were tears, to be sure, but there was a strong, undergirding sense of gratitude, humility and grace.”

Pastor Don Johnson had been in North Carolina attending his mother-in-law’s funeral and was unable to return until late Sunday night. He praised the staff for the way in which they ministered during the crisis.

Johnson also expressed gratitude for the people who removed important items from the church and his home as the fire advanced. The church is only a 10-minute walk from the school, which was severely damaged.

“They did an amazing job,” he said.

The church also grieved the death and honored the life of member Carl Herman, 98, who died during the evacuation. He had been critically ill for some time, Trautwein noted.

He leaves behind his wife, Nell, 99. The couple had been married 80 years.

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