Amid the charred rubble that was his rented home, Bryan Laws found the remains of a plaque that represented the type of life he had begun to build with his church family in Paradise, California: “They broke bread in their homes and ate together with sincere and glad hearts.” Laws clasped this memento close, a tribute to a life that is now behind him and his family, a promise that there is a good future on the other side of burnt up dreams.

On November 8, the Camp Fire, reportedly the deadliest and most destructive fire in California’s history, swept through the town of Paradise, destroying 95 percent of the town’s buildings, and killing at least 86 residents. Neither the office nor the meeting location of Ridge Presbyterian Church (RPC), where Laws serves as assistant pastor, was spared; nor were the majority of church members’ homes.

Escape from Paradise

The morning of the fire began uneventfully for Laws, who moved to Paradise for his first pastoral assignment after graduating from Covenant Theological Seminary. On the way home from a coffee shop, Laws stopped to get gas and noticed a few wafts of smoke.

“The absolute hardest thing has been the death of dreams, the death of hopes and plans … and the radical changing of a community.”

“Fires happen in California. It’s not all that unusual to see smoke rising,” he said.

Returning home, Laws began checking emails while his wife Angie and daughter still slept. Soon, he began receiving text alerts about the fire, with recommendations to begin evacuating.

He woke Angie, who was five months pregnant with their second child, threw a few things in their cars, and stopped by the home of some elderly neighbors to make sure they were awake and aware of the impending danger. While Laws was at the neighbors, his wife texted to say that she and their toddler were going to leave town in their other vehicle. Five minutes later, Laws followed.

What should have been a swift drive out of town turned into four hours of gridlocked traffic and smoke that turned the sky to pitch. Poor cell phone connection interrupted communication with Angie, and Laws says he contemplated ditching his car and making a run for it.

Laws admits, “I ended up praying prayers that day that I thought I would never have to pray. Like, ‘Lord, if I don’t make it today, please at least get my family out.’ ”

Eventually, Laws made it out of the melee, met up with Angie at a coffee shop outside of town, and drove to Sacramento to stay with family.

Re-balancing

Josh Lee, senior pastor of RPC who lives in Chico where the church has a second location, says that the the church spent the following few days reeling, trying to account for all its people. Despite the lives that were lost in Paradise that day, all of RPC’s members survived.

Charred remains of a Bible recovered from the site of Ridge Presbyterian Church.

With the Paradise meeting location reduced to ash, members of RPC’s site in Chico mobilized, setting up a donation center where members of the church and the wider community could come for clothing, toiletries, and snacks. Meanwhile, donations of cash and gift cards began flooding in from across the country through a fire relief fund. Sister churches from across Northern California Presbytery, as well as friends from other denominations, offered prayer, financial, and ministerial support.

“One of the encouraging things has been the overwhelming generosity of people from so many different corners, people we know, people we don’t know … to see new people come to life and use their skills,” says Laws.

Salt in the Wound

With the exception Lee and one deacon, all of RPC’s leaders lost their homes. One ruling elder made the difficult decision to relocate, along with a handful of other church families. With the majority of gas stations, grocery stores, and schools burnt to the ground, Lee says that he can see the writing on the wall.

“Some are gung-ho about rebuilding, but eight months down the road when we’re beginning to realize just how long it’s gonna take and how big the task is, a lot of people will realize they just can’t wait that long.”

“It’s radically different than what we thought the future would look like,” Laws says. “It’s hard to release that and then with open hands say, ‘Okay Lord, we had our story in mind, but clearly that wasn’t Your story. So what now is Your story with the congregation?’ ”

“The absolute hardest thing has been the death of dreams, the death of hopes and plans … and the radical changing of a community,” says Laws. “As a pastor, you love your people and you begin to plan and dream and pray, and you hope that things are going to go in a certain direction.”

“Saying goodbye [to people] very abruptly, it just feels like it’s been salt in the wound,” adds Lee. “It feels like a nightmare that you never wake up from.”

Up until the fire, the Laws’ hosted a weekly community group in their home, and Bryan was excited about the birth of other new groups as well as a regular meeting of young men preparing for service in the diaconate. Those gatherings are on hold for now, maybe forever.

“It’s radically different than what we thought the future would look like,” Laws says. “It’s hard to release that and then with open hands say, ‘Okay Lord, we had our story in mind, but clearly that wasn’t Your story. So what now is Your story with the congregation?’ ”

Still Strong

The Sunday evening following the fire, RPC hosted a prayer service at their Chico location. They hoped for maybe 40 to show up. Instead, the sanctuary was packed out, dear friends leaning on each other, singing “It is Well with My Soul” at the top of their lungs.

While temporarily worshipping with their brothers and sisters in Chico on Sunday evenings, the Paradise group doesn’t know yet what the future holds. At this point, they are just taking one day at a time.

Laws concludes: “The Lord is good … and His church is strong, even when life takes turns that you don’t expect … I’m grateful to be a part of a family that is much bigger than me.”

To contribute to the fire relief fund and other disaster response efforts of Mission to North America, visit https://pcamna.org/disaster-response/storms/.