By Jenna Pirrie
SANTA BARBARA, CA (January 12, 2017) — Despite roadblocks throughout the area, nearly 70 people from around the community attended a hastily called prayer service held Wednesday night at Montecito Covenant Church in response to Tuesday night’s deadly mudslide.
Pastors from two other nearby churches assisted in the liturgy that included singing, prayer, and reading Scripture together. MCC associate pastor John Lemmond said that especially meaningful for some was Psalm 46:
God is our refuge and strength,
an ever-present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way
and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea,
though its waters roar and foam
and the mountains quake with their surging.
“They hold onto it because it names their pain,” Lemmond said.
“You see a hunger for people to be with other people to share their grief and support one another,” Lemmond said. “It’s such a tight-knit community. Everyone knows everyone else.”
MCC youth pastor Anna Beebe was watching TV coverage when she saw a report showing rescuers pulling a mud-covered teenage girl from her house, which had been destroyed. He called Lemmond who was at the hospital visiting another church member on a separate issue.
Lemmond met the girl in the emergency room. Her mother had been taken to another hospital, but church members helped them relay messages to one another. As of this writing, the girl’s father has been positively identified among the dead, and her brother remains missing.
At least 17 people were killed when the mud slammed through the community. The confirmed dead range in age from three to 89, according to official reports. An undetermined number of people remain unaccounted for. More than 100 homes were destroyed or heavily damaged.
“It’s devastating,” Lemmond said. “It’s so hard to imagine that kind of force.” Water normally takes six hours to flow from the top of the hill to the bottom, but the mud descended in a mere 10 minutes.
The disaster is a direct result of wild fires that forced widespread evacuations and left the area vulnerable to mudslides from recent heavy rains. The people in the path of the mudslide had evacuated during the fires. Many, who already were suffering from disaster fatigue, had been hesitant to leave their homes again, authorities said.
Still, many of the homes that were destroyed were in a voluntary evacuation area, and those in the mandatory zone experienced less damage, said Diana Trautwein, who served as associate pastor of MCC for 14 years until she retired in 2010. A home she retains and leases to family members is located just down the street from where the slide occurred, and sustained no damage.
Some residents and family members are struggling with guilt for not leaving, Lemmond said. Others are experiencing anger mixed with grief for dead and missing loved ones who didn’t heed calls to leave.
Lemmond said the church also has been seeking to minister to first responders, for whom the work has traumatizing. “They are used to trying to save lives, not pulling out so many dead bodies,” he added.
Trautwein has counseled a number of people since Tuesday night. “I’m deeply moved by the loss of life and property and the loss of feelings of safety and security that so many are facing,” she said, “but I think threading through all of that is a deep sense of the goodness of God and how, even in the midst of a mess, the image of God that exists in every one of us, comes to the surface.
“Right now people are being very tender, very careful, very aware that life is fragile, and very concerned for how people are doing,” she added. “It is amazing to me how traumatic events like this can highlight the best in humankind.”
Ministers from four churches met Wednesday to discuss possible future actions. While nothing has been decided, they were able to talk through which groups would be able to respond in the best ways—and when they should offer help. Lemmond said, “We’re trying to do our due diligence on how to be responsible in the way we respond.”
The ministers met with Katherine Wiebe, a minister who heads the national Institute for Congregational Trauma and Growth, which is based in the area.
People wanting to contribute to a disaster fund can mail checks to the church at 671 Cold Spring Road, Santa Barbara, CA 93108, and designate them for the church’s compassion fund and mudslide relief.
Lemmond acknowledged some people might be less prone to give to the fund because area residents tend to have higher incomes, but he said the immediate pain and needs still are being felt. The donations help the church extend the gospel in a tangible way.