Six weeks in, churches continue to respond to New Mexico’s largest-ever wildfires

As New Mexico’s worst wildfires on record continue to rage, area churches — some in close proximity to the fires — are pitching in on relief efforts.

The United Church of Christ Disaster Ministries team is offering grants to families already affected by the fires and inviting gifts to support them.

The fires started April 6 as a controlled burn. As of May 23, they had covered 461,000 acres in Northern New Mexico, according to the National Interagency Fire Center.

Wildfire has not yet struck any UCC church building, though some churches are in sight of the Cerro Palado, Calf Canyon and Hermits Peak fires. Some UCC members have fled their homes. And UCC churches in the state — along with the larger Southwest Conference, to which they belong — have been offering support in many ways.

‘Unceasing winds’

By mid-May, several families affiliated with United Church of Los Alamos — a 45-minute drive northwest of Santa Fe — had evacuated. Their pastor, the Rev. David Elton, expressed concern for them in a recent edition of the church’s weekly e-news.

United Church of Los Alamos, N.M., is one of the UCC churches in the vicinity of the current wildfires.

“I hope that those of you who have left Los Alamos and are staying with family, friends, in a second home, an Airbnb, RV, at Sonlight Camp, or a timeshare, are comfortable in your temporary living arrangements,” he said. “We look forward to seeing you when you’re back in Los Alamos and the Cerro Pelado fire is much more contained.”

“The remorseless and unceasing winds continue to send wildfires in all directions to consume all of the dry fuel with which we are surrounded,” said the Rev. Julie Parmenter. She is pastor of Taos United Community Church, 70 miles north of Santa Fe.

“We are blessed that there is currently no fire in Taos,” she said, despite “303,000 acres burning on the eastern side of the Sangre de Cristo mountains. We are located on the western side of the range. There are over 1,900 fire fighters fighting this blaze 24 hours a day.

“No one from our church has been affected yet by the Calf Canyon and Hermits Peak fires. Evacuations are being directed to the west — in other words, into Taos. We are an evacuation site for humans and horses, dogs and cats, children and adults.”

People, livestock, creation

Parmenter described Taos as “a blessed and giving community” and yet “besieged with poverty on all levels.” United Community Church is “a small congregation with a lot of energy for service,” she said. Some of its members are associated with Holy Cross Hospital, and the church is responding by donating relief supplies to the hospital’s collection drive.

She said they appreciate support from the Southwest Conference, which has, among other things, helped publicize the appeal for donations to the hospital’s drive. Needed items range from food for people, to hay and accommodations for livestock.

The Rev. Tom Davis, newly appointed Southwest Conference disaster response coordinator, has also been in touch with affected UCC churches. He is working as well to coordinate responses through New Mexico Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster, of which the Conference is a member.

Congregations not in the path of the fires are helping, too. United Church of Santa Fe, for example, posted on social media May 14 that its church council had voted $3,000 toward fire relief. The church is accepting further such donations at its website or by check. The church said it “holds in deep prayer the communities and all creation throughout Northern New Mexico in harm’s way due to the wildfires. We pray also for all firefighters, support crews, and others who are helping.”

Seeking — and giving — help

National UCC grants are available, too, said Lesli Remaly, minister for disaster response and recovery with the Global H.O.P.E. team.

“Disaster Ministries stands ready to support the Southwest Conference and its churches with solidarity grants — $3,000 — to aid the Conference and congregations in emergency relief efforts to serve the fire-affected communities,” she said.

A FEMA maps shows the five New Mexico counties included in a federal disaster declaration. Their residents can apply for financial and direct services from the government. UCC “solidarity grants” are available to congregations engaged in emergency relief efforts as well.

And locally — as well as in the Conference and national settings — the UCC is preparing for the long haul.

“As recovery begins we will be working closely with Tom Davis to offer long-term recovery seed grants and recovery repair grants for families impacted by these devastating fires,” Remaly said.

She encouraged people and churches throughout the UCC “to give generously” in support of these and similar disaster relief and recovery efforts. She suggested they click on the “donate now” button at the top of the home page and use the pull-down menu to designate gifts to “Emergency USA.”

She noted that people in five New Mexico counties — Colfax, Lincoln, Mora, San Miguel and Valencia — can apply to the Federal Emergency Management Agency for financial and direct services. For help in doing so, they can visit a FEMA disaster recovery center at Eastern New Mexico University in Ruidoso or one of several mobile FEMA centers.

‘Feeling of anxiety’

Meantime, living with smoke on the horizon is stressful, Parmenter said. “Since the winds are from the west, we only see a great deal of smoke when the wind stops. Billows up to 37,000 feet high are ominous. There is a low to moderate feeling of anxiety throughout Taos every day. We pray for rain and relief for our firefighters.”

Indeed, cooler weather arriving on Monday, May 23, seemed to be aiding the firefighting effort.

White Rock Presbyterian Church, also northwest of Santa Fe, is collecting relief items, including canned goods, water, clothing, and items for baby and pet care. It is one of three community sites where people can drop those items off.

“Fires happen,” said the Rev. Deb Worley, a UCC minister who is White Rock’s pastor, in the church’s online newsletter. “Challenges come, even life-threatening ones. Uncertainty and anxiety and fear and grief continue to show up in our lives.

“To be a person of faith does not mean we will not experience fire, or flood, or challenge, or grief. It does mean that by the grace of God, they do not consume us. It does mean that through the strength of God, they do not destroy us. It does mean that in the shadow of God’s wings and with the people of God at our side, we can walk through it. One step at a time, one breath at a time, one prayer at a time.”

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Categories: Disaster Updates United Church of Christ News

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