By Jim Nieman
A small church in a town of fewer than 2,000 in west-central Oregon is playing an outsized role in helping its region recover from wildfires that swept through large swaths of the Pacific Northwest last summer and fall.
Mill City (Ore.) Christian Church initially helped by establishing a disaster relief store, but for the past few months it has partnered with a church from Washington state, along with area business owners and individuals, to help clear some of the more than 300 homes destroyed in the area.
“I had spent a year asking God to use me in this community and made prayer a major part of my life,” said Paul Luna, senior pastor of MCCC. That’s when high winds swept the Beachie Creek Fire through the Santiam Canyon just as Labor Day was ending.
“Most of us had been enjoying the day with barbecues and pleasant weather, but that evening ended with a cloud of smoke that turned our skies to deep orange,” Luna said. “I don’t think any of us really knew how bad things were going to get.”
Mill City avoided the worst of the inferno, as the fire—coming from the east—somehow went north of the town “before dropping back down,” Luna said.
“This left most of the infrastructure of Mill City in place, but those who lived in our neighboring communities, as close as three miles from Mill City and on the outskirts, were hit hard,” he said.
“Two days after we got hit by the fire, I talked to God and asked, ‘Now what?’”
FIRST STEPS TO RECOVERY
Luna said, through the Holy Spirit’s leading, he contacted every disaster relief agency he could think of and/or find online.
He asked for prayer. He asked what he should expect in the days and months ahead. He asked for help to “become an expert in an area that I know nothing about. . . . Within days we were connected with other churches and ministries who helped us set up our disaster relief store.”
For two months the store was “open to anyone affected by the fire.” Everything was free—clothing, linens, toiletries, food, tools, baby products, and “anything else anyone would need to get back on their feet.”
“If we didn’t have it on hand, like a particular size of pants, we would write it on our whiteboard, and people would fill those needs and bring those products to us to give to those who needed them.”
In addition, “We shared the hope in Christ through prayer and just listening to these people’s stories.”
HELP FROM THE NORTH
By October, the church began the physical process of clearing properties, though preparatory steps began just two weeks after the fire when Luna received a call from Rob Lloyd, pastor with Freedom Community Church in Vancouver, Wash.
“Our church family heard of the fires and . . . we wanted to see if Jesus could use us [there],” Lloyd explained. “So I looked up the local churches and made a cold call. That’s when I met pastor Paul. He’d never heard of me but agreed to drive me around for a day to discuss possibly partnering together to help those in his community. I have to say, God connected me to a great friend that day.”
Two weeks later, a crew from the Vancouver church made the 85-mile drive to Mill City, Lloyd said, “and we’ve been coming down every other week for about three months now.”
“The Holy Spirit brought along the perfect partner,” Luna said. “Almost immediately we got to work on our first property, which was a church member of ours.” (Five Mill City Christian Church households had their homes destroyed in the fire, though others who lost their homes have joined the church in the months since.)
“We explained that the process would be slow and that [the first cleanup] would allow us to learn what to do and what not to do,” Luna said. “Rob organized our very first team—about 15 people in all—along with bringing in a retired fire official and former FEMA employee. It took about a month to clear our first property, but that experience was invaluable in preparing us for future properties in our community.”
MCCC, FCC, and various others from the region have teamed up to help clear 15 properties thus far, Luna said.
Among those helping: B&B Excavating LLC (part-owned by a former MCCC member who now serves as a youth pastor at a nearby church); Cherry City Metals in Salem, Ore. (which has provided free recycling bins); and Alpha Environmental, Portland, Ore. (an Alpha employee is testing ash from the various sites for $200 each—which is 10 percent of the normal cost).
“You can’t get the debris, outside of metal, taken off your property without having the ash tested first,” Luna explained.
THE CLEANUP PROCESS
Hidden job site dangers necessitate that volunteers follow a procedure.
“We always approach a burned building from the outside, slowly working our way in,” Luna said. “We want to make sure that we don’t step on anything that will give way, like debris that is covering a basement, step on a piece of rusted metal, have a limb from a burnt tree fall on us, or get injured by one of the excavators on-site. It’s mostly situational awareness and making sure we don’t get so focused on the job at hand that we miss the possible dangers around us.”
Helping clean up 15 properties “seems like a small dent in the over 300 homes that burned down in our area, but you do for one what you wish you could do for all,” Luna said.
An article in the Statesman Journal indicated that, without help from volunteer groups, it could take state-hired contractors up to 18 months to clear all 3,000-plus properties in Oregon destroyed by multiple wildfires.
“We want to make an impact on our community either directly or indirectly, and that means we are to act as the body of Christ in a community that’s hurting.”
Mill City Christian was a church that averaged about 80 before the pandemic. Of those folks, about 20 have helped with the church’s disaster relief efforts, he said.
AN AMAZING EXPERIENCE
“There’s this indescribable feeling when you partner with God and start clearing property,” Luna said. “You start seeing how he affects the hearts of those around you and it creates excitement and joy to be doing what he’s called us to do. Even people who don’t go to our church—or any church, for that matter—when they get involved, they often comment on how amazing it is to be a part of what the Holy Spirit is doing through God’s people.”
“We’re just ordinary, average people,” Luna said. “[But] we came before God in prayer, recognizing our own inabilities and weaknesses [and] we sought out wise counsel from other believers who understood what we were going to be facing. We pooled our talents and worked like one body under the leadership of Christ. . . . It is true, God uses ordinary people to do extraordinary things for him.”
Luna had this advice for church leaders faced with natural disasters in their area.
“Begin with prayer, invite the Holy Spirit into the planning, and then listen. With much prayer comes much blessing, with little prayer comes little blessing, and with no prayer comes no blessing.
“Seek out wise counsel from other believers and ask for their prayers. Start small and as you become more experienced, invite the rest of the body of Christ to partner together to do what he’s called us to do.
“Finally, don’t rush to get to the end result at the expense of ministry. It’s not about efficiency; it’s about ministry to the community and showing the hope that is only found in Christ.”
Jim Nieman serves as managing editor of Christian Standard.