Wildfire Doesn’t Quash Church’s Community Mission
By Justin Horey
The moment that defined 2018 for Mission Church actually took place at the end of 2017. On December 4 of that year, the Thomas Fire started burning in Santa Paula, California, just 20 miles from Ventura, where Mission Church has been located since its founding in 2011.
The wildfire burned with unusual speed, and lead pastor Mike Hickerson remembers watching the flames approach as he stood on the roof of his home that evening. The fire reached Ventura overnight and began destroying structures in the city. By the time the fire was fully contained on January 12, it had destroyed hundreds of homes and displaced thousands of residents in Ventura and the surrounding communities.
Prior to the Thomas Fire, Mission Church was already serving its neighbors in practical ways. For years, the congregation had offered unused space in its temporary home—a decommissioned multiplex movie theater known as the Century 16—as a warming shelter for homeless people during winter months. When the Thomas Fire displaced large numbers of Ventura’s residents, Hickerson said Mission Church’s history of agreeing to help—he calls them “simple yeses”—prepared the church to serve in a much bigger way.
The day after the fire began, Mission Church said “yes” to being a distribution center of emergency supplies for families who had been evacuated or displaced. Neighbors donated essential items like soap, bottled water, toiletries, and clean clothes. Twelve of the unused theaters at Century 16 were filled with enormous amounts of inventory, and Mission Church distributed goods to people in need for two and one-half days before the American Red Cross arrived to set up its own distribution center.
During that time, nearly 80 families received emergency supplies at Century 16. Mission Church staffed the impromptu distribution center with volunteers from the congregation who acted as personal shoppers to people and families who had immediate needs, helping them locate necessities in the enormous theater-turned-warehouse.
“We became a lighthouse to the city during that time,” Hickerson said.
When the immediate needs had been addressed, Mission Church invited other churches and local service organizations to form a Community Support Team that provided long-term help and support to people affected by the fire. Nearly 50 local organizations—more than half of them churches—joined that team. For three months following the fire, volunteer liaisons from the Community Support Team worked with schools to distribute more than $200,000 in gift cards and supplies donated for families in need.
Though Mission Church never sought recognition for establishing or leading the Community Support Team, Hickerson said the congregation grew “in strength and in numbers” during 2018 as it served the victims of the Thomas Fire. Mission Church purchased its own facility in 2018—a 25,000-square-foot converted warehouse with visibility from California’s scenic Highway 101. The church is using that facility to meet as many community needs as possible.
“Every church wants to be a help to their community,” Hickerson said, “and at Mission Church, help is a big deal to us. We’re continuing to say yes when our community needs us.” He believes it’s one important way Mission Church can show the love of Christ to people who don’t share his faith. “People might not agree with what we believe, but they know we will help.”
Justin Horey is a writer, musician, and the founder of Livingstone Marketing. He lives in Southern California.