Churches provide millions in cash, volunteer hours for fire relief
— by Lori Arnold, Christian Examiner Newspapers
San Diego County Protestant churches and para-church organizations have contributed more than $4.5 million in volunteer hours, cash and in-kind donations, according to an informal survey by the Christian Examiner of more than three dozen groups.
In all, 42 groups responded to our request for information. Another dozen or so did not respond by press time.
The numbers represent a conservative—but far reaching look—at the army of Christian volunteers that went to work in the hours after the Oct. 25 fires erupted. Six months later the work continues with several groups, including the Mennonite Disaster Service, conducting long-term response. On April 19, a group from Pilgrim Church in Connecticut arrived in Julian for a week’s worth of work.
Many church leaders cite last year’s Mission San Diego with Billy Graham as the catalyst for the immediate Christian recovery effort. Within days, about a dozen communities were identified and adopted by area churches working in concert. Some of those connections were established as part of the pre-crusade planning.
“These are the things that he (Graham) leaves here,” said Dr. Jim Garlow, pastor of Skyline Church and the primary force behind the Pastor’s Rapid Response Team, which has been training offering chaplain training for pastors for the past year. “It’s more than a Billy Graham crusade. It was a move of the Holy Spirit.”
The Rev. Robert Wagener, pastor of Chapel of the Hills United Methodist Church in Descanso agreed.
“It’s given us the opportunity to come together as Christians, handling it spiritually first, then practically when it came to after the fire,” he said.
“We do it for the Lord. We don’t do it for the recognition.”
Even so, the combined effort is impressive.
The figures, gathered between April 5 and April 19, are considered conservative because many churches did not keep detailed records of individual efforts made by the members on behalf of the fire victims because they were too busy responding to the staggering need.
According to church estimates, more than $3.09 million in cash donations was collected and distributed through churches and other Christian non-profit groups.
Donation of time
Perhaps the most precious gift—time—was given in stunning fashion, with more than 100,000 hours donated. The $677,754 value assessed in our survey was considered low by most standards because the hours were figured at minimum wage, $6.75. A more realistic value would be $16.01 an hour, the amount used by 1,000 Points of Light and several other national volunteer organizations, to figure value of volunteer hours. Using that formula, San Diego church members donated $1.6 million in time. Still others, such as the Mennonite Disaster Service, estimates the value of its workers at $17 an hour, while Church World Services and the Christian Reformed World Relief Committee, estimate the value of their consultants at $18.75 an hour.
The hardest element to get hard facts on was in-kind donations. Those gifts amounted to donated clothes, toys, household goods, food, water, equipment and the use of tools and machinery such as water trucks, trailers and back hoes. Most churches we surveyed were unable to give an estimated value of the in-kind donations that where channeled through their ministries.
Of those that could, Rescue Task Force listed more than $200,000 in beverages, disaster packs and teen gift cards. Operation Blessing, working through El Cajon Foursquare Church, donated a trailer of supplies valued at $30,000. Several churches reported donations of about $15,000 for materials used for sand bags.
Chris Tuthill, with the Julian-Cuyamaca Resource Center, supplied a list of 30 Protestant organizations that have assisted them. The list also includes Catholic, Jewish and Mormon groups. In all, Tuthill estimates that more than 86,000 hours have been donated in that center alone.
Many of the churches were forced to juggle the needs of their own members who lost homes and property with the needs of the greater community. Several were able to help on both fronts.
While much of the donated effort came in the form of emergency relief in the weeks immediately after the fires, churches developed a wide range of ways to assist. Some held babysitting clinics, others provided temporary storage for belongings. One church distributed $100 bills to families in need in the Wildcat Canyon and Blossom Valley areas. The Rock Church in San Diego adopted nearly every fire station in the county in January, providing the personnel with a free dinner, thank you cards and hugs. Maranatha Chapel raised $30,000 in a golf tournament the first week after the fires.
The California State Baptist Convention provided more than 25,000 meals, three mobile kitchens and 280 loads of laundry.
Area pastors, numbering more than 250, donated their time as chaplains, with nearly 100 receiving the training in the days after the fire. A value of those services was not available because the time invested by each chaplain varied. Reach for the Son Church provided 300 turkey bags, while Canyon Springs purchased some heavy equipment for Julian. Numerous churches and organizations, including Episcopal Community Services, underwrote the salary of on-site coordinators at several of the centers.
The Salvation Army, which itself was a victim after suffering nearly $4 million in fire damage to its regional camp in Ramona, budgeted $1.5 million for fire relief and has pledged to match that in the coming months, a number not reflected in our cumulative total. Valley Center Community Church helped to house displaced horses.
Christian Reformed World Relief Committee brought in 15 consultants to interview and assess the needs of 293 households. Area Churches of Christ assisted about 600 families with site clean-up and toiletries.
One of the Billy Graham Mission San Diego team members, still in San Diego awaiting her next assignment, donated two straight weeks of time helping in the back country. The BGEA also provided emergency crisis training for scores of people, although the value of that training was not available at press time.
Erosion control was another major project, with churches providing large work crews to fill and transport the bags, mostly with donated materials. Hillside Community Church processed 175 tons of sand, according to Pastor Rick Hill.
Photo: Billy Graham addressing a crowd in San Diego, California, in 2003. (BGEA/Courtesy)