LCMS families lose everything in California wildfires

By Linda C. Hoops

Rev. Craig Boehlke and his wife, Jennifer, were watching television at 11:30 p.m. Nov. 15, when a neighbor knocked on their sliding glass door and warned them that wildfires were approaching their mobile home commfire.gifunity in Sylmar, Calif.  The couple switched to the local news channel and watched the fire’s progression.  At 2:30 a.m., they received a mandatory evacuation order.

“We had about 15 minutes to get photo albums, pictures off the wall, and some changes of clothing into our car,” said Boehlke, pastor of Our Savior’s First Lutheran Church, Granada Hills, Calif.  “That was all.” 

Their home was one of 425 mobile homes that were reduced to ashes by the wildfires that swept through the San Fernando Valley, just north of Los Angeles.  They and five other LCMS families lost their houses in the community including Rev. Charles Collier, pastor of Faith Lutheran Church in Tujunga, Calif., who lost two homes:  his and a rental property that was for sale.  

Collier, who had knee replacement surgery two weeks earlier, was asleep when the evacuation order was received.  “We had 10 minutes to get out:  me, three dogs, and my caretaker.”  Even with his knee still painful, he managed to drive his van away from the fire.

“We talk about helping people out in these kinds of circumstances,” he said, “but now I approach it differently having been on the other side.  The Pacific Southwest District people just have been so generous and loving on top of all this.  And I will be returning money to the disaster fund as I’m able.”

The fund he mentions was started last year during the southern California fires, said Jerry Reichman, executive team leader and disaster response coordinator for the Pacific Southwest District.  Donations to it have been made by LCMS Lutherans all over the country.  “We gave about $100,000 to those affected in the San Diego fires,” Reichman said, “and we have given $24,000 to the four churches whose pastors and members were affected by these latest fires.”

The Boehlkes, accompanied by Rev. Glenn F. Merritt, director of Disaster Response, and Rev. Carlos Hernandez, director of Districts and Congregations with LCMS Wofire2.gifrld Relief and Human Care, returned to their home several days later, but all they found were pieces of their nativity scene which had been in a storage area.

Boehlke says he can see God in action even in the midst of the destruction. “People have been wonderful in responding to this crisis,” Boehlke said.  “Our Pacific Southwest District office has helped, as has LCMS World Relief.  Some non-LCMS churches have even taken up door offerings for us.  To see the body of Christ responding like this is wonderful.”

During their two-day trip to California, Merritt and Hernandez met with Rev. James Page and Principal Peggy Courtney of First Lutheran Church and School in San Fernando.  First Lutheran opened its doors to people who had evacuated their homes in the middle of the night and served as a shelter for two days.  LCMS WR-HC gave a $5,000 emergency disaster relief grant to the school to help two of its non-member families whose homes were destroyed.

“These are folks who really need help,” Page told the LCMS WR-HC staff.  “Even before the economic downturn, people here were living paycheck to paycheck.”  First Lutheran School, with grades K-12, serves a large Latino population and a growing Korean population.

LCMS WR-HC gave another $5,000 grant to Hephatha Lutheran Church and School, Anaheim, Calif., to help two non-member families who lost everything in the fire.  As of Dec. 3, the Synod’s disaster response arm has given $36,000 in emergency relief grants to the Pacific Southwest District and its congregations.

“These grants will not cover all the many needs of these households,” said Hernandez, “which include the up-front costs of transitional housing, clothing, furnishings, food, etc., but it will help them begin the long road back to recovery, which includes knowing, experiencing, and receiving Christian care and compassion as they move through the trauma and crisis of suddenly being homeless.”

Send donations to LCMS World Relief and Human Care, P.O. Box 66861, St. Louis, MO 63166-9810; call the credit-card gift line at 888-930-4438; or, to give online, visit (click “Give Now”).

Linda C. Hoops is a freelance writer and a member of The Lutheran Church of the Resurrection, Sunset Hills, Mo.

Posted Dec. 4, 2008

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