These humble heroes are offering comfort amidst flames
As the fires swept across Northern California in early October, families evacuated their homes, businesses closed, hospitals scrambled to get their patients to safety—and just like the billowing clouds of smoke, uncertainty filled the air of these communities. As families connected to the local American Red Cross in Willits and Ukiah, California, many were led to evacuation centers. One evacuation center was at Ukiah High School, where many members of the community would find out if their houses were still standing.
Along with Cal Fire and the Red Cross, a team of volunteers from Adventist Health were onsite to help, too—but in a different way than you might imagine: They were there to listen and to provide comfort. “We asked, ‘How can we help? Can we provide nurses or physicians?’ and the Ukiah and Willits team responded by saying more than anything, they needed chaplains,” says Paul Crampton, assistant vice president of Strategic Planning and Mission at Adventist Health Roseville.
Dennis Long, director of Spiritual Care at Frank R. Howard Memorial Hospital, rallied a team of hospital and law enforcement chaplains for the cause. These chaplains would provide their services to evacuees and first responders during the fires near Ukiah and Willits. “The calls came within an hour of each other,” says Dennis. “The law enforcement called to mobilize my chaplains for the Red Cross, and then Paul Crampton reached out to ask what Adventist Health could do.”
And a short time later, the Red Cross was handing out a list of 16 on-call Adventist Health chaplains to community members in Ukiah, Willits, Santa Rosa and the Napa area. “We got the list together and on Friday I delivered it to the Red Cross for distribution. Over the weekend we received over a dozen calls from community members that lost homes—they just needed somebody to talk to,” says Dennis. And because Dennis’s chaplains are certified in Critical Incident Stress Management (CISM) debriefing, they were a great relief.
Hundreds of community members attended the daily briefing meetings that took place at the Ukiah High School during the fires, hoping to hear that they could return to their homes. After the meetings, people lined up in a separate room where Cal Fire had set up computer stations where people could give their home address and see detailed photos of their property. Cal Fire then submitted the photos to the insurance companies. It was in this moment, when people were discovering the fate of their homes, that Dennis’ team were a crucial part of the process.
“You can imagine the rollercoaster of emotions happening in that room,” says Dennis. “On one hand you have people clapping, excited to find out their houses were still standing. And then you have people discovering that they’ve lost everything.”
“An elderly woman stepped up and gave her address. She learned that her house burned down.” Dennis says he was sitting next to the lady as she explained how her house, built by her great grandfather, had been the home of three generations of her family. “She said that all of the memories and pictures she had from her family were stored in a heavy safe inside the home. She was hoping and praying this safe would survive the fires.” And although her home did not make it, her safe did.
Another story that pulled on Dennis’s heart strings involved a young family that discovered they lost everything. “The young man was standing way back from the computer as the others waited for the pictures to load,” Dennis says the man couldn’t look at the screens; he couldn’t bear to see the three homes he’d built for his family destroyed. “They wanted the ‘American Dream’,” Dennis says. “He told me, ‘I did everything right to make a better life for my family, I worked so hard. I just can’t bear to see if we lost it.’” As his wife turned to him with tears in her eyes, his fears were confirmed: All three houses were lost.
“There’s no words in that moment that can relieve that pain,” says Dennis. “You just have to leave space for it—you don’t want to deny it—but in that moment you just have to live God’s love and put your arms around them.”
Not all the stories were heartbreaking. When one local man discovered that his house has been lost in the fires, he responded in a way that surprised the entire room of people. “He just goes, ‘Oh, that’s too bad. Well. On the bright side, I guess I don’t have to clean my carpets now.’ And that got everybody laughing,” says Dennis.
After three days working with the Cal Fire team Dennis said they became friends. “One of the men told me, ‘My job is just to give them the news. Sometimes it’s good, sometimes bad. People leave crying—we have to compartmentalize that. I never thought about how important it is to have a chaplain there for them in their grief.’” Dennis says the man wanted to make it a priority to have chaplains present before breaking this type of news to families in the future. “He just said to me, How do you do what you do?’”
Dennis gives all the credit to God.
“When I got the calling to become a chaplain, I said to God: Fine. I’ll do what you’re calling me to do, but you have to protect my soul from this grief,” Dennis says. “And He has.”
Above: Dennis Long, director of Spiritual Care, Adventist Health Howard Memorial