In times of great loss, Northern California faith communities prepare to support those affected by wildfires

Photo from The Red Cross

There is no rule book for responding to crisis on this magnitude, Executive Director of the San Fransisco Interfaith Council (SFIC) Michael Pappas said. As the fires In California rage, he is focused on being a “portal of communication” to other faith leaders who are in a better position to help during this humanitarian crisis.

Although he is not in the heart of the chaos, which is focused in Sonoma County and Napa Valley, Pappas said that The Red Cross and Salvation Army, which are best prepared to deal with this crisis, are headquartered in San Francisco. Working with them and the San Francisco Public Health Department, Pappas’ role right now is to stay in constant communication, sending out advisories to his 4,500 contacts and encouraging them to repost on their social media and share with their congregations.

“I heard from the executive director of Marin Interfaith Council that upwards of 15,000 evacuees may have to be sheltered,” Pappas said. “San Francisco may absorb some of that. We’re trying to identify shelter sites. You need to do that in advance,” he advised from experience, explaining that SFIC was born out of the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake in the San Francisco Bay Area and another crisis. SFIC has a mission in disaster preparedness response and recovery.

Scott Quinn is the executive director of Marin Interfaith Council who has been in touch with Pappas. Located in San Rafael, Cali., which reportedly has the worst air quality in the nation as smoke pours in, Quinn said that the primary emotion in his community is sadness.

“The devastation of the fire, how intense, how massive, the sadness, the shock…” Quinn said. “Those are probably the primary emotions too. And then I would say one other thing is a sense of comradery with so many people coming forward to help and assist. While it’s immensely painful, we’re not alone.”

Both SFIC and Marin Interfaith Council are Cooperation Circles of United Religions Initiative North America, a grassroots interfaith organization dedicated to promoting daily interfaith cooperation to create cultures of peace, justice and healing.

In responding to the fires, Quinn is taking direction from a Marin Interfaith Council member Elaine Tokolahi, who is the Director of Volunteer Services with the Center of Volunteer and Nonprofit Leadership in the Marin-Napa area. Quinn was asked to help coordinate, along with the Society of St. Vincent De Paul, congregations who can open their doors to host people who have been displaced.

The city reached out to St. Vincent De Paul because they knew the nonprofit already had experience housing a large number of displaced people through their REST program, the Rotating Emergency Shelter Team. Every November, REST coordinates congregations in opening up their doors to the large population of homeless in Marin County. Housing those displaced by fire is an entirely different endeavor, however.

“These congregations we already know are willing to host people who had nowhere else to go,” Quinn said. “The thought was they would be able to do that on a deeper level by hosting evacuees.”

For the REST program, congregants are only hosting someone for one night.

“This is much more intense and ongoing,” Quinn said. “It’s a different population. There are different needs. The county was thinking wisely by calling on the congregations they already know provide shelter for the homeless.”

Quinn’s job in this is contacting congregations who are not a part of the REST program.

“There are many, many, many, many other congregations who aren’t involved in REST,” Quinn said. “What I was asked to do was contact those congregations, create a list and send it to the county.”

Quinn said that interfaith communities working together play an important role in the recovery process after a natural disaster because at the core of faith traditions is love and compassion. The need for disaster relief has motivated members of different faith communities to come forward, offer safe space, food, financial assistants, spiritual support, counseling and chaplaincy from every faith perspective, he said.

Pappas said it’s the resilience of faith communities that are making them leaders in this disaster response.

“We sit on a lot of valuable property that can be repurposed as needed,” Pappas said. “We have the capability to mobilize our congregants as volunteers.”

“We’re told if disaster strikes, we could be isolated up to 72 hours or more,” he continued. “Where’s the natural place people are going to gravitate to? They’re going to gravitate to houses of worship. We need to be prepared to open our doors, to practice our faith through hospitality.”

Quinn said that the same response seen after Hurricane Harvey in Texas and Hurricane Irma in Florida is what is needed in California right now, reminding people that although everyone is focused on that tragedy for a week, recovery will take months and years.

“I was talking to the head of the regional Red Cross here, and he said he was up in Lake County where two years ago there were awful fires [like these now],” Quinn said. “They are just now getting building permits to rebuild what was lost in the fire. These are long-term healing efforts our faith community can participate in.”

While it’s easy to feel overwhelmed in the midst of so many natural disasters occurring in such a short time frame, Quinn said to find that calm, still center point within “all of our spiritual traditions.”

“If we are to remain active, engaged, then we have to continue to identify with that center point,” Quinn said. “That allows us to continue to face and feel the pain of seeing our neighbors in distress, which enables us to stay present because we’re grounded in that place of stillness.”

Quinn wants to leave the interfaith community with this question: “With the horrible hurricanes, with these fires, is any part of the intensity of these natural disasters that is related to our human choices?”

“I don’t have an answer for it, but it’s a question I’m holding in my own heart,” Quinn said.