Residents turn to spirituality to help cope with catastrophe |

Residents turn to spirituality to help cope with catastrophe

Carla Wetzel of Gardnerville needs a tissue during Sunday's service at First Baptist Church of South Lake Tahoe. / Trevor Clark / Tahoe Daily Tribune

Rita Redd meandered into the forest Sunday outside her “E” Street home to bond with nature. The places off North Upper Truckee Road where she used to find that time for peace and quiet had been ravaged by an inferno that consumed 3,100 acres and destroyed 254 homes a week ago.

She harnessed that energy later that morning and brought it to the South Lake Tahoe Senior Center where a line of Tibetan prayer flags, a lit candle, hugs, hand holding, prayer and song greeted the Unity at the Lake worshippers.

“I wanted to get spiritually centered,” Redd said.

Hundreds of South Shore visitors, locals and part-time residents of all beliefs packed churches and used the “day of rest” as a time to thank volunteers, reflect on stories of compassion, turn to scripture and agree on how lucky they all are to be alive.

No one was killed in the Angora fire that broke out June 24, an unprecedented Sunday that may change the South Shore forever. If anything, an overwhelming outpouring of compassion among neighbors has emerged from the ashes to help residents left with rubble receive shelter and possessions.

Janice Eastburn took the microphone from Unity leader Stew Bittman, and told the group of nearly 60 people about a moving experience she had going to the Ernie’s Coffee Shop fire fundraiser Friday night. The restaurant was overflowing and bustling until a group of firefighters walked in.

“Everyone stood up and broke out in applause. It felt so human,” she said.

Eastburn had her own cathartic experience when she was forced to evacuate Tuesday afternoon when the fire, then contained at Gardner Mountain, jumped the line and ended up on the other side of Highway 89 where her Tahoe Island home stood.

“Who had evacuated their home?” Bittman asked, while overseeing the Unity service. About a dozen people in the audience raised their hands.

“We have really learned this week — love is all there is,” Bittman said.

Community in church

To Sierra Community Church pastor Dan Wilvers, the disaster was a test on several levels.

As the packed congregation passed around clipboards asking for time, money and donations, Wilvers explained to his flock how this is the time to “practice what we preach” in giving to our neighbors.

“We’re here out of concern for others — not just Sierra Community,” he said, reminding members of the South Lake Tahoe church’s widespread missions in places like Cambodia. The heartfelt urgency took on new meaning since the fire ignited in the community’s back yard.

“In the coming weeks, I anticipate practical needs that will need to be addressed. I tell you, this will work, but it’s going to take you guys,” he said.

He stressed that the message the South Shore was left with after such a disaster goes far beyond caring for one another. Sure, “life is not fair” when good people have traumatic things happen to them, and they question the presence of God. But in a deeper sense, God is already there — waiting for a human awakening of faith to overcome tragic times.

“As you struggle, I struggle. But I’ll put out my hands, feet and wallet to work for you,” he said.

The rousing sermon received a few amens. The music got people on their feet, including 5-year-old Aaron Budnik, who was clapping and standing on a chair.

First in the hearts

First Baptist Church pastor Alan Morse was beaming with pride that those in and out of his congregation stepped up to the plate to do God’s work. The parking lot featured stacks of donated items.

“God has given us the awesome opportunity to help people,” he said, calling outrageous acts of kindness “refreshing” for a community that has shrunk in size and undergone a harsh winter for business because of the worst snowpack conditions in the last two decades.

“We saw non-believers drop off things and say we don’t go to this church, but we care. Is that not God (working)?” he asked, promising a barn-raising effort from his church for burned-out victims.

It worked for Carla Wetzel, who drove up from Gardnerville to donate items for those suffering. She doesn’t attend church but offered to load the trucks and stayed for the service.

She was moved to tears.

“The whole thing is overwhelming. I can’t imagine what it’s like. I don’t understand why and still don’t,” she admitted.

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