It felt rather appropriate to celebrate All Saints’ Day this past Sunday as our congregation reassembled after being evacuated for the Kincade Fire. The way that our community came together in the face of this disaster provided glimpses and experiences of the communion of the saints, of our mysterious union across time and space, of the great cloud of witnesses that surrounds us, of the understanding that we all, each of us, are the saints of God.
I am told that even in the midst of the smoke and fear and darkness and traffic standstill of 4 a.m. Sunday morning that the people of Sebastopol continued to treat each other with care and concern. On Lynch road while sitting in gridlock, people got out of their cars and checked on one another. On a normally quiet country road that became a bumper-to-bumper parking lot, people stopped and allowed others to merge, making it possible for some of our parishioners to pull out of their driveway. On Calder Avenue, a couple in their pajamas went car-to-car handing out sparkling water and tangerines. In a fearful moment that could have felt competitive for survival, our community reached out to one another in love, care and support. This is what community looks like.
On Sunday, as Deacon Kate Sefton and I made calls to check in on parishioners who had been evacuated, she learned that one of our elders with health challenges was to sleep on the floor that night. We scanned the directory, and she knew just who to call — a parishioner outside the evacuation order, with a big heart and a spare room. He immediately went to get this other parishioner and brought her into his home
I have heard story after story of friends and family and virtual strangers taking us in and caring for us — making us into family. Giving us a place to sleep, warm meals and if possible a hot shower. Many of the stories make me laugh. They include one home that ended up with 10 people, five dogs and four cats. A parent of a toddler and a five-day old told me of staying with a family that had an entire collection of antique metal anvils on the living room floor (a toddler and metal anvils — not a good combination).
Another parishioner stayed on a one-acre property with 17 people and an entire evacuated rescue shelter of dogs running all over the place. There were 20 dogs and 13 cats. One dog had just had puppies. I am told the cats stayed in the trailer.
One parishioner told me that she evacuated with a friend who has a lot of anxiety, which only got worse as the hours wore on. She tells me that she remembers hearing her voice calm him and tell him that he was better able to take care of himself than he gave himself credit for. As she heard herself, she said she suddenly stopped for a moment, and thought how much she sounded like her own mother. Usually she responds, as most of us do, thinking, “Oh no, I’ve become my mother!” But she knew he needed to be heard and comforted and so instead, this time, she thanked her mom, in that cloud of witnesses, for teaching her how to access her true, genuine, empathetic feelings and use them to help someone else, without losing a part of herself. She has struggled with this for a long time — feeling that in caring for someone else she loses a part of herself. She writes, “But I feel quite sure, now, that no part of me can be diminished just because I can feel for someone. I am whole — as I am. And as my mother was. I am whole thanks to the good lord and my mother.”
Another parishioner told me of a neighbor with whom she and her husband have had border disputes with in the past — disputes that have turned ugly with threats of violence toward her husband. Their neighbor did not have any cell phone service and was not receiving the Nixle alerts about evacuation. She and her husband yelled across their property, and he came over to ask what was going on. After they briefed him on the mandatory evacuation, he put his arm around her husband and said, “I want us to be good neighbors.” We need each other. Together we are healed.
On Tuesday, in between my phone calls and my husband Kai’s calls with folks at the nonprofit where he works, he shared with me that they were receiving reports that there was a group of farmworkers at the fairgrounds in Cloverdale sleeping outside and without food. His nonprofit didn’t have anyone on the ground in Cloverdale and was working to plan a response but needed to find out what was going on. It felt like a bit of a revelation to me that I could offer to contact folks at our church in Cloverdale. In less than a half an hour from my call, Deacon Bob Scott and soon-to-be priest Tim McDonald of Good Shepherd Cloverdale were at the fairgrounds with someone to interpret. They found a group of 10 farmworkers with tents, in need of blankets, sweaters, warm socks and food. They didn’t have gas to travel and didn’t want to move. Bob and Tim and others gathered blankets, warm clothes, a cooler, ice and food and dropped it all off.
This is the power of connectedness, of community. Community enables us to reach beyond ourselves and help others.
While I was still far away, multiple parishioners let me know that they had come by the church to check on the buildings and grounds. That they had walked everything, made sure it all looked OK, checked the doors. Our parish administrator mopped up puddles around our freezer. A parishioner began emptying our fridge and freezers before I had even thought of it.
My family and I arrived back late Wednesday evening. Thursday morning, Halloween, as I began to empty our fridge, I had a hard time imagining how our area could possibly be ready for trick or treaters that night. Most of us didn’t have groceries, let alone candy. I took to NextDoor Sebastopol, an online platform that connects neighbors, expecting to start a thread asking if neighbors were by some miracle ready to receive kids and prepared to make alternative plans. Instead, I found two threads where parents had already asked this question and where residents replied with a resounding “Yes!” Florence Avenue was rallying. Bring out the kids! Posts read: “We will be handing out candy and have a big graveyard and haunted house at Washington and Valentine.” “Bring the kids to Murphy Avenue.” “Bring your kids to Stefenoni Court off Robinson.”
To be honest, I was brought to tears. I knew it was so important to my 4-year-old daughter. And here were these complete strangers, members of my larger community whom I didn’t personally know, showing such love and care for our children. Providing normalcy. Insuring that our kids wouldn’t miss this holiday. It wasn’t life saving. But it was so meaningful, so loving, so generous. And I remain so touched. A cloud of love and support.
This year, no one needs explain to us the importance of the communion of saints. We have lived it. We have walked together and been reminded of our need for and connection to one another, to complete strangers and to those no longer present to us.
The Rev. Christy Laborda Harris is the rector of St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Sebastopol.