The California Fire May Have Burned Most Church Buildings, but the Church Is Still Alive

The wildfire that left Paradise, California, in grim, dusty ruins this week destroyed more than half of about two dozen houses of worship in the town, along with thousands of homes and other structures.

From safer ground in nearby Chico, pastors have worked to coordinate physical and spiritual relief for their now far-flung congregants. They’ve also been tasked with delivering updates on their church buildings, as Paradise residents hope for any indication that their homes, schools, or sanctuaries may have been spared from the worst.

“Though the physical attributes of our earthly Paradise are destroyed, the spirit of Paradise has spread across the country and around the world, as people are moved to volunteer resources to help,” wrote leaders from Paradise Adventist Church, whose building was burned in the Camp Fire, the deadliest in California history.

In the community of around 27,000 people, most congregations lost buildings, including Our Savior Lutheran Church (LCMS), Ridge Presbyterian Church (PCA), Paradise Church of Christ, First Assembly of God, Craig Memorial Congregational Church, Paradise Foursquare, New Life Apostolic Church, Paradise Pentecostal Church of God, Community Church of the Brethren, and Hope Christian Church. A Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (LDS) meetinghouse and a Center for Spiritual Living were also destroyed.

“Building was burnt down, but cross and rock still standing,” wrote Hope Christian’s lead pastor Stan Freitas. “The church is still alive.”

Freitas and church members had constructed a new worship space just this year, building a tall wooden cross in front of the new structure. This week, he shared a picture of the hand-carved cross, bearing the motto, “Love God, Love People”—which remained erect though the rest of the building had crumbled.

At over a century old, Craig Memorial Congregational Church was one of the most historic churches in Paradise, built in 1909 to replace an even earlier building that had been destroyed in a fire.

Its leaders remembered the stained glass lilies in the historic sanctuary: “These flowers represent the resurrection—which draws us to the words of 1 Corinthians 15, verse 42: ‘So it is with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable.’”

So far, more than 60 people died in the blaze, and more than 600 remain unaccounted-for. Baptist Press reported that at least one Southern Baptist congregation in the area confirmed one of its members is among the dead. In the midst of grief and loss, Paradise’s Christians continue to hold gatherings at churches in Chico or other neighboring cities, proclaiming messages of hope, renewal, and revival.

“Our building has been lost … but our hope and our trust in Jesus has not!” declared a Facebook post by First Assembly of God. New Life Apostolic, which lost its parsonage and church building, quoted Psalm 30:5 (NKJV), “Weeping may endure for a night, but joy comes in the morning!”

Some churches were damaged but not destroyed. Jubilee Church lost its sanctuary, but its office and new construction survived. The Adventist Review reports that both Paradise Adventist Academy and Adventist Health’s Feather River Hospital were mostly intact, with only some portions burned down.

Given the limited access to return to Paradise, multiple congregations initially relied on reports from others on their status; Paradise Nazarene and Congregation Harei Yeshua, a Messianic community, first got the news that their buildings burned down, only to later hear confirmation that they were still standing.

Even churches whose buildings were spared face the same harsh reality as the rest of Paradise; the vast majority of their pastors, staff, and congregation have lost their homes.

After last week’s evacuation, church leaders spent the past several days checking in on families, coordinating an overwhelming wave of relief supplies, and rethinking what ministry will look like in the short-term.

“Our church is spread out all over California and the surrounding states. That’s been the hardest part because being the shepherd, you now have no idea where your people are even at,” said Josh Gallagher, pastor of Paradise Alliance Church.

He left Paradise last Thursday, initially for a shelter at Neighborhood Church in Chico. He later learned that his family had lost their home, along with 18 of 21 families on the church’s staff—a proportion that corresponds with the degree of loss across the community.

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Source: Christianity Today