Paradise, California, and lessons in rebuilding for the long haul.
On November 8, 2018, a massive fire was triggered in northern California and decimated the town of Paradise and surrounding mountain communities in less than half a day. Nearly two years later, as the nation grapples with urgent questions around community resilience in the wake of trauma, two pastoral figures from the area, Richard Yale and Lew Powell, reflect on mission, relationalism, and the civic responsibilities of the church.
This transcript has been edited for length and clarity. For the full experience, and to hear the heart behind the words, I encourage you to listen to the podcast episode here.
Anne Snyder: Welcome back to The Whole Person Revolution, a podcast of Breaking Ground. It’s a real treat to open up today’s journey with two pastoral figures whose vocations have been at the mercy of an era when increasingly dramatic natural disasters are now normal. Specifically, in their case, the Camp Fire of 2018 that destroyed the town of Paradise, California, and killed scores and scores of human beings.
Richard Yale and Lew Powell are brothers in arms at St. John the Evangelist Episcopal Church in Chico, the neighboring city in the valley that absorbed this trauma and thousands of displaced persons as they frantically escaped the flames that fateful day.
Prior to the Camp Fire, Chico’s population hovered around 86,000. Afterward, it surged to a nearly 30 percent increase and now hovers just around 103,000. As policymakers at both national and local levels increasingly turned to questions of community resilience in the wake of trauma—community re-creation when all has been stripped away—I thought it would be wise to ask these two for some impartation of perspective as they’ve had to pivot from being ministers of God, and everything we associate with that calling, to being the connective tissue in a long-term recovery effort that serves mountain people and city people, Republicans and Democrats, Blacks and Whites, those who’ve experienced trauma firsthand and those who’ve endured a kind of secondary slap, with ripple effects that touch nearly everything in one’s life. Richard and Lew, thanks very much for sharing some of your time and yourselves with us today.
Lew Powell: Well, good to be here.
Richard Yale: Thank you for having me.
Anne: It’s hard to begin, especially in this 2020 when the whole nation and the world have been engulfed in a whole new set of crises on top of those your own region has endured the last few years. But for the sake of starting somewhere, could you give us a brief plot line of your own vocational pathways up until the Camp Fire in November of 2018? Why did each of you enter the church, and then specifically the Episcopal Church?
Lew: My journey started when I was in college. Believe it or not, it was because of the young lady I was dating. There was a Canterbury Club, which is an Episcopalian club on campus. At the time, because I just wanted to spend another hour or so with the young lady I was dating, I would go to the Canterbury Club. And I discovered that these weird folk who call themselves Episcopalians were real people. They discuss real issues, real concerns for the nation, for their communities.
That struck me. I decided to become a part of that entire group of religious people. So in my senior year, I went through the training that was necessary at that time to become an Episcopalian and decided that I needed to be confirmed, and I was.
So that started my path along this vocational direction. Over the years, I’ve never regretted spending that extra time in Canterbury Club.
I am a vocational deacon, and I have never had any aspirations of becoming a pastor of a church, even though quite often I’m called that. Over the years I’ve served in three different dioceses of the Episcopal Church: the Diocese of California; the Diocese of Rio Grande, which is in New Mexico; and the Diocese of Northern California. I’ve served in different churches, different roles. I’ve even been the Episcopal chaplain for the University of New Mexico and a volunteer jail chaplain and a chaplain for a homeless facility.
Anne: Richard, what about you?
Richard: I’m actually a cradle Episcopalian, and was raised being told this was our heritage. I had every intent to leave the Episcopal Church during my teen years—for a number of reasons. One is difficulty in my family. My parents were divorced, and I found the church wasn’t there for me the way I expected them to be.
I connected with church groups like Young Life—I was very involved in Young Life—and yet I was very theologically minded. I loved going to a Christian bookstore we had in Southern California, the Christian Discount Books in Whittier. It was a bit of a drive, but once we got our cars and were able to drive, we went down. We called it a cheaper way to heaven. I would buy up theology books and start reading them and was moved to touch people’s lives through the gospel. It really struck me.
My grandfather, who I was very close to in my senior year in high school, was very ill, and the only one person he wanted to see in the hospital was me. He was a bit of a scoffer in his life—raised Catholic but had long left the church—and there in the hospital, I did my best to tell him about the love of God and Jesus Christ. It was an overwhelming experience to share that. I know if there had been a video camera, I would cringe with everything I said back then. But it was at that time I said, “You know, I want to tell people about what God’s doing in the world and in their lives.”
I went off eventually to Westmont College in the late ’70s, an evangelical college, expecting not to be an Episcopalian, and I fell into a nest of really on-fire, engaged, missional Episcopalians. I remember saying morning prayer for chapel one day from the 1928 prayer book, the prayer book I grew up with singing as a boy chorister. And if I were a Methodist, I would say my heart was strangely warmed, because saying morning prayer, I said, “I have trouble with this group, I’m not always heading in the same direction they are. But these are my people and this is my home.”
I went to seminary at the Church Divinity School of the Pacific and Berkeley in the ’80s, went into parish ministry, and eventually twenty-three years ago came to St. John the Evangelist here in Chico. I’ve been here as the priest—the “rector” is our term. Episcopalians have layers and layers of weird words to explain very simple things.
Some very important benchmarks for me on the way: At a time where I needed to get perked up, I got engaged with the doctor of ministry program at Fuller Seminary with a wide breadth of people from across a variety of Christian traditions, and that’s where I got that missional vision. Prior to that I had engaged with the thought of Lesslie Newbigin, who I was blessed to meet, and had started seeing mission as being so formative, but was really formed in that perspective at Fuller. Bringing that back, I engaged with a street ministry here in Chico called Street Pastors, going out in the middle of the night with the homeless and the college partiers.
Then two and a half years ago we had the spillway. Oroville Dam was threatening to break, and 180,000 people had to evacuate. Many of them came to Chico, and we opened up our church. It was right after Lew and his wife, Ann, who’s also a deacon, came on board. We did an incredible work of ministry together in supporting our community.
I think that really brought me to a point that when the Camp Fire happened, we were ready. God had prepared us to respond.
Anne: That’s beautiful, thank you.
So, this unbelievable event occurs on November 8, 2018—this fire. How would you describe what you thought your role involved, Richard, as a rector or a pastor, prior to that day? And now, as you’ve looked at it since, how would you describe how it’s evolved and whether you had a choice in that?
And Lew, as a deacon, was there something about that day that you would look back on as a turning point? Not just for St. John the Evangelist and the civic role it has played as a church and as a community, but also for each of you vocationally?
Richard: Friends and parishioners have pointed out that when I started getting more deeply involved personally in mission, it became closer to my heart and I was more able to lead through that. It was less about congregational support and perpetuation, as important as that is. All that work of congregational development and building people up in fellowship and worship is highly significant, and yet it is to form a people for mission.
That morning—I remember that morning specifically—Lew and I had just texted. We were planning on going to our diocesan convention eighty miles away the next day, so we were kind of kicking back and thinking we would take this day easy. We were going to say morning prayer at home rather than together that day. And then I got a call from Alan Reliford saying, “There’s a fire. It’s bad.” I literally laced up my boots, put on a clergy shirt, and said we’re going.
The first call was to the bishop and the bishop staff, who were supportive. We went into the office, and we began working the problem. Having responded so quickly to the spillway was significant [as a precedent]. Instead of having just chaos among us, we began working the problem. We got a whiteboard in my room—I still have a whiteboard in my office—and we started charting out: What are we going to do? Who do we need to talk to? We started calling people: calling people in from the congregation to start working on it; calling people in the congregation to see who could put up survivors who need a place to stay; and calling people in Paradise we knew, both in our congregation and the Paradise Episcopal congregation. “How are you doing? Are you out?” In one case, I had to encourage dear Art, of blessed memory, “Art, now is the time. Get in the car.” He ended up having a harrowing story, came right to the church.
Anne: Lew, were you with Richard when he went straight to the office and started working the problem?
Lew: No, I was at home, preparing to go to the diocesan convention. I had a series of things going on at the same time. I had been appointed by our presiding bishop and our president of the general convention to a task force for the entire Episcopal Church on creation care and environmental racism. We were to meet in Baltimore at the end of the diocesan convention. I was also going to our diocesan convention to support a resolution that I’d been asked to support, dealing with some issues around racism and that type of thing.
So I pretty much had to go to the convention. I decided that I would go to convention the next day, and be a part of that, and proceed straight down to the airport to fly out to Baltimore. But I had to confess to a group that I’d never seen—I’d seen maybe two of the people before out of a group of about twenty people—that my body was in Baltimore, but my heart and mind were back in Chico and Paradise and Magalia, because I really wanted to be back there, even though I’d committed to being at this big task-force meeting. So that’s how it struck me that day.
Anne: When you eventually came back home, do you recall, even just visually, your reaction to the area?
Lew: Well, my reaction already was pretty heightened, because I drove through the smoke. I flew down to Sacramento, and everything was just inundated by the smoke. But I think for me, it was just the idea that many people were going to be without a place to live, and many families were going to be devastated by loss of life. That was heavy on my heart. It still is. Even though I was dealing with a church-wide commission, that was still there.
I was able to bring part of that to that task force. As a matter of fact, we had a Zoom meeting the next day. And I was on the Zoom meeting from Baltimore, talking with the bishop and Richard and everyone else who was involved with that, starting to address issues of need and concern for the community.
Anne: With all you’ve learned and continue to learn in the last few years of a new normal for your region, one thing that has always intrigued me about both of you, as well as the broader role that St. John the Evangelist in particular has played, is that it really seems to have shifted quite naturally. You talk about being prepared somehow, almost in your unconscious bones, as a community to start working on the problem instead of descending into chaos. But the ability to be agile—not that you have done it perfectly—in the face of the new need in the community . . . you talk about mission, Richard, and has your definition of “the church” changed in all this or deepened? It’s a tricky, maybe controversial theological question, but I mean it as much in its embodied, practical, lived form as anything you’d read in a textbook.
Richard: Well, a couple things come to mind. Almost two months to the day before the fire, we celebrated a big day at St. John’s about all that we had accomplished through the last however many years, culminating in the renewal of our building that needed to be done. We established a prayer garden. Our Boy Scout troop put the elbow grease into a beautiful prayer garden. We have a farm on site with the Jesus Center, which is a Christian resource center for homeless people, that is being worked by homeless folks and volunteers. All this stuff had been a culmination of years of ministry that we felt very good about, and it was a big celebration. We had a taco truck. It was fantastic. It was very meaningful.
Then two months later, all of a sudden, all of that shifted. I remembered a movie I saw as a kid, The Longest Day, about D-Day. In one scene, Teddy Roosevelt Jr. is on Utah Beach with his officers. They’re in a little foxhole. They’re looking at a map, and they say, “Teddy, we’re on the wrong beach.” Yep, looks like that’s the case. As you know, our supplies and our reinforcements are going to be landing on the right beach. What are we going to do? We’re on the wrong beach. And he says, “Well, man, the supplies and the reinforcements will have to follow us. We’re starting the war from here. Let’s move inland.”
We thought we were on a different beach, landing on a beach of success after many years of wonderful ministry had culminated. And all of a sudden we found ourselves on the wrong beach.
It’s not a war, but it’s the mission. Well, this is where we are. The mission is starting here. We’re moving in. The mission is given by God and also shaped by the contours of your community. And when your community changes overnight irrevocably, the contours of your mission change. But it’s interesting. What we’ve done has been a continuation of what has been happening all along, in a more intentional and certainly more intense way. But it’s not different. It’s what we prepared for all along.
“The mission is given by God and also shaped by the contours of your community. And when your community changes overnight irrevocably, the contours of your mission change.”Click to Tweet
There’s a saying from the Orthodox—there’s two versions of it, but they kind of interconnect. One is, “We know where the church is. We do not know where the church is not.” And a parallel one: “We know where the Spirit is. We do not know where the Spirit is not.” We rely on knowing where the Spirit is in the Word, in our sacraments, and in our deep connections with one another in the body of Christ—both in the way we form our life as Episcopalians and in our orders of ministry—bishop, priest, and deacon—that are much more than just organizational things. They are fonts of engagement and mission, I have learned.
Not knowing where the church is not or where the Spirit is not, we are often surprised by the partners on the way, many of whom do not know Christ as we do, who may not even believe there is a Christ, and yet we know that the Spirit is at work and we listen and are open to that. We’ve become close with the Tzu Chi Buddhist Foundation, and Lew and I have both spoken at Tzu Chi events, where they asked us to give Christian prayers and to bear witness to what God is doing. Without losing sight of our distinctiveness and our vision of what it means to be followers of Jesus Christ, we want to be part of the reign of God, the kingdom of God that is set before us, and to articulate and to live that out as human flourishing in ravaged communities, and to partner with all people of goodwill in that direction.
Anne: That’s a tough act to follow, Lew, but would you add anything or your own reflection on your understanding of the calling or the role of the church? Has it shifted in all of the drama of the last few years?
Lew: I don’t think that the church has ever shifted. But I would say that our missional activities have shifted.
About one week after I returned from Baltimore, we received a shout-out from the Butte County Behavioral Health Department asking for clergy to be at the Disaster Recovery Center, which was located in an old Sears building at the mall. They asked that clergy be present, if possible, when the sheriff’s department was taking DNA from family members to help identify those who had been killed in the fire.
I had some training in crisis incidents and stress management years ago—many years ago—but also had worked with some of the survivors from Katrina when I was back in New Mexico, so I said, “Okay, I will show up. I know how to do some of this.” And lo and behold, I ended up being a part of that activity and being present not just for those who donated their DNA, but for the others who just needed someone to share their experiences with for the next three and a half months, four days a week. So that was a shift. But I think somewhere along the line I’ve been prepared to be the church for those who showed up. And I think that’s part of what we’re asked to do in a missional manner.
Anne: In the intensity of those first three and a half months, Lew, did you find the bulk of your time was just spent deeply listening, or did you feel called on to actually offer some kind of verbal response or other form of response? Just curious how the accompaniment actually looked in those early months.
Lew: Well, I considered my sense there as a presence. Sometimes, just being present with someone to hear their stories, to hand them a tissue as they cried, was important at that time. It helped to transform me too, but I was not the subject of that. They were. In their grief and their trauma experiences, it was important to have someone who could walk with them during that time. To answer your question, there were times when I did have to say something. But most of the time, it was listening.
“Sometimes, just being present with someone to hear their stories, to hand them a tissue as they cried, was important at that time. It helped to transform me too, but I was not the subject of that.”Click to Tweet
Anne: Thank you for that, so moving. Until the coronavirus hit and knocked out a lot of our physical interaction, you continued to go up to this particular mountain community, Magalia, with some regularity, correct?
Lew: Yes, I committed to going up to Magalia once a week, every week, normally on Thursdays. I would spend four to five, maybe six hours up there, also being a presence for those who were still suffering, and who had stories to share and questions about how they get through that. Most the time, I have to confess, I didn’t have the answers. And I still don’t have the answers. But at least they had someone who could hear their stories. Many times, people just wanted to say a short prayer.
And that’s what we did. We developed really meaningful relationships. It was all about relationship-building for me. And we have built relationships with people up on the ridge. Richard has too. We were actually invited to come up. There’s a short story about this.
“Most the time, I have to confess, I didn’t have the answers. And I still don’t have the answers. But at least they had someone who could hear their stories.”Click to Tweet
Immediately after the fire, maybe about two weeks after, a local organization decided that they wanted to establish a feeding program and other resources and activities for the survivors who were up in Magalia particularly. We were invited to come up and see how we could enter into that relationship. Well, Richard and I both went up, and we saw what was going on. We listened to the needs. And . . . we joke about—Richard has a band. It’s called—
Richard: Chainsaws for the Homeless.
Lew: Chainsaws for the Homeless!
Anne: I was going to say, this is your moment of fame, but with that title, Richard . . .
Richard: Well, we went up, and there are some wonderful people and various groups up there. Magalia Community Church, and this other organization that was a little bit ad hoc, had a list of needs. It was wintertime. I was with the long-term recovery group and was the chair of the Spiritual Emotional Wellness Committee, which I still am. And I asked them, “What are some of your needs? We’re going to coordinate, we’re going to see if we can connect with people.” And the first one was “chainsaws for the homeless.”
We mentioned that to our group, actually with the diocese on a Zoom meeting, and the meeting was effectively over. We were thinking of getting tee shirts, but we decided that that would not be the best use of some of our resources.
From those connections, some of them more official connections with FEMA or Red Cross or local congregations or local civic leaders, and some just with ad hoc groups that sprung up, there was a level of finding a place of commonality—and places of boundaries obviously—but of being open to collaborating with whomever God has placed in our path. In fact, I think it’s changed our way of articulating what our ongoing work is in mission and in our congregation. Collaboration is a much higher priority. There are people all through our community working for the common good who reflect what God is doing in the world, reflect the ultimate vision of the new Jerusalem, and we can collaborate and partner with them on the way forward.
“Collaboration is a much higher priority. There are people all through our community working for the common good who reflect what God is doing in the world, reflect the ultimate vision of the new Jerusalem, and we can collaborate and partner with them on the way forward.”Click to Tweet
We don’t need to invent anything. There are big congregations who can do that—good on them! But we’re not going to have the St. John’s Center for Flourishing Human Life. Instead, we’re going to say, “Who’s working on flourishing human life? How are we going to collaborate with you, whether Christian or not?” That collaboration is at the heart of mission for us. And that’s how Lew wound up at Magalia Community Church.
It’s more than just going up and saying prayers for people. Lew is far too humble about what he does. He is one of the leaders up there who gives deep wisdom to a program that is sometimes on the edge of viability and on the edge of chaos.
There’s still deep poverty up there. Trying to meet the needs of the folks there is a kind of distribution center, that with your average disaster would have gone away a long time ago, and yet as they move through and hit the rough edges of recovery, Lew is there as one who brings wisdom and who they trust who’s not also enmeshed in the system. It’s a wonderful ministry.
I should also say—and I don’t want to hijack the conversation—but part of the role of the deacon in the Episcopal Church is not to do the missional work, not to do the service work, but to be the embodiment of the whole body of Christ engaging in service. So when Lew goes out to serve, he draws a congregation with him.
Another thing the prayer book says is that the deacon is responsible to interpret the needs of the world back to the church. It’s a two-way street. Lew, being sent out to Magalia Community Church, or his wife Ann, who is also a deacon, engaging with some of the toughest cases and connecting them with the Tzu Chi Foundation for their case management—they lead us into mission and interpret back to us the needs of the world.
We’ve recognized the depth of our polity. It’s not just organizational. It’s a font of life. The priest or pastor is more the gatherer. Until COVID-19, many, many hundreds of people came through St. John’s buildings each week to engage in the work of recovery: governmental agencies, the long-term recovery group, various community agencies. We were open. My task is to be the gatherer and use my connections to help gather a community to collaborate and to engage. And I should say also, because we’re Episcopalians, that the office of the bishop oversees all of this in a wonderful way: to help us find greater resources from the larger church, to connect us to a whole community and network throughout the country, and to look after us. When we were burning out, I had the canon of the ordinary come in and tell me that I needed to get help. All three orders of our polity were working together in mission and recovery.
I guess I would say to those who have their own polities, go deep into your own polity. They weren’t just something you got from a management book. It goes deep into the tradition of the church and your own ecclesial tradition, to empower the work of ministry. And I think that’s important.
Anne: Thank you. You’re doing a very dangerous thing right now—namely, you’re making me fall in love with the Episcopal Church. So don’t say much more.
Richard: Strange how that happens.
Lew: Watch out for us.
Anne: I know!
Lew: Also, to add on to what Richard was saying, one of the most important things we learned at a heart level was to listen to the people.
Lew: I’ve been saying for many years in sermons and other things, what are the people saying their needs are? Not what we think their needs are. Too often, those two things get mixed up, and we project onto people what we think they need, rather than what the people really need.
“What are the people saying their needs are? Not what we think their needs are. Too often, those two things get mixed up, and we project onto people what we think they need, rather than what the people really need.”Click to Tweet
Richard: That’s huge. And that’s that interpretive part of the diaconate. The deacons interpret the needs of the world, listening to those voices. I’ve learned that from Lew and from others and have applied that here.
I told people in Magalia that we’re here to help. But we’re not here to cast the vision of recovery. We’re not here to tell you what your community should look like. We’re here to listen. You carry the vision, and we’ll help you carry the burden. It can’t be flatlanders like me coming in and telling you what the community should look like.
But I said, “I want you to think more boldly than better streets and rebuilt houses and power lines under the ground instead of overhead. I want you to think about a flourishing community. I want you to cast a vision of community, of mutual care, of justice, of all peoples coming together in commonwealth for the common good. You cast that vision. We’ll help you carry it.”
And then they asked me to be on a committee for the—
Anne: Now you’re a Magalia man.
Richard: I am a Magalia man. I am on the Magalia Community Park board. We’re establishing a park and a community center for Magalia for the first time. I’m the flatlander on the committee there. Carrying the vision of a thriving and flourishing ridge mountain community.
Anne: Thank you for that. Some people say that pain can do one of two things: It can either break you or break you open. Obviously it can do many other things, but if you’re going to make a dualism out of it, I’ve always thought that was helpful. When you think more broadly about the area, especially Chico right now, which in many ways has absorbed much of this and has dealt with secondary and tertiary trauma across a million levels—hearing the stories, suddenly having your city swell by a huge proportion, experiencing the smoke on the day itself, and so on—if you could assess where the city is right now, how is it doing? Is it maturing through this or shrinking and contracting and getting more divisive?
Richard: A few thoughts on this. We have been divisive, and there are some real hard edges and polarization within our community, particularly around homelessness, about quality of life in Chico. We have a needle-exchange program that has been very controversial. Often the homeless can wind up being the scapegoats.
I think it’s a way of deflecting, in many ways, dealing with the depth of trauma that we’ve all felt. The quality of life, if you will, changes dramatically when your community and your county has been so affected. Nobody would say it in the early days, but there’s a pushback in some respects on this. The work of recovery is ongoing. It’s a twelve-year project, at least. There is continuing trauma that finds the weak seam and blows through.
Quite frankly, the recovery is not a sure thing. Between the economics of our communities and the economics of our country—not to mention the world with COVID and everything else—it is not a sure thing that we are going to thrive. And yet it’s the church’s role to project and continue to claim a flourishing that is a reflection of what we know God is doing in history through Christ. We in our heart of hearts know, and we say it at appropriate times, that our hope is in God. We’re not hoping in the long-term recovery group. We’re not hoping in economic development. We’re not hoping in builders coming into town. We hope in God.
“It is not a sure thing that we are going to thrive. And yet it’s the church’s role to project and continue to claim a flourishing that is a reflection of what we know God is doing in history through Christ.”Click to Tweet
The church hopes in God precisely because, humanly speaking, the church has no hope. We are called to live into that hope. And that’s what we’re doing—but with the knowledge that this is hard work. We all experience secondary, tertiary trauma, and it can overwhelm us, and we need self-care for everybody in our communities. It’s so important.
Anne: Yeah. Lew, do you have anything to add there?
Lew: We all have suffered from trauma. And retraumatization is taking place again, because of COVID-19.
In our community, Richard is right. There has been some pushback. And on a national level, there’s been some pushback toward providing assistance for those communities that need it. The communities on the ridge are people who need it, and often the assistance comes belatedly.
This has been part of the whole process all along. But progress is taking place there. There are homes being rebuilt. There are some businesses that are beginning to open again, whether or not they will look like they did three years ago. I have reservations about that. But something new is going to take place in those places. So I have this tremendous hope for the people on the ridge.
Anne: Thank you, Lew. Thank you, Richard. As you’ve now weathered, with the broader United States, both COVID-19 and then a series of police shootings that have sort awakened a large portion of the country to long-standing racial injustice—a national series of crises, one layered on top of another—have you ever felt like there are some lessons you learned locally that you wish you could impart? Whether to our leadership as a nation or to civic leaders in other local areas? How do we think about community resilience? A lot of us are learning how to hold deep pain and possibility together at the same time, sometimes in very tangible ways. Do you feel you have something to say that could be helpful, or do you really feel like you’re on as much of a journey as the rest of us?
Richard: Yes. I can’t answer that.
Something I’ve learned from the people here is the importance of bottom-up care and resilience. We need trauma-informed clinicians at the top of this pyramid. We need pastors and counselors in that middle section. But the care in the community that I have noticed on the ground comes from below—it comes from people embedded in communities, embedded in neighborhoods, embedded in civic organizations, in congregations. A lot of the low-hanging fruit of resilience is so significant. Don’t downplay that.
As we’re talking about issues of race in particular right now in our nation, we’re looking at systemic changes that need to be made. It can seem overwhelming. I don’t want this to be an out, but the low-hanging fruit of showing up and being the resilient community together is just huge. We had a Black Lives Matter event in our community, and a Black pastor asked a White pastor to show up. Showing up was huge, just huge. Being there, being engaged and listening, is much greater than we think.
“As we’re talking about issues of race in particular right now in our nation, we’re looking at systemic changes that need to be made. It can seem overwhelming. I don’t want this to be an out, but the low-hanging fruit of showing up and being the resilient community together is just huge.”Click to Tweet
A bunch of little old ladies from St. John’s went down to Concow, one of the outlying regions that burned, and have adopted a school that’s been through so much trauma. Every child in the school has lost so much, as have the teachers and the staff. The ladies go down and handwrite Valentines for them and show up at the graduation and cheer. That stuff is the base of resilience.
There still needs to be leadership, as we see locally with our long-term recovery group and with other organizations providing systemic changes, but it’s going to be built on the foundation of basic community resilience that we practice just by walking in the park together, listening to each other’s stories, and crying together. It’s so easy to forget that. As we talk about systemic change in terms of racism or so many other areas in our community, we should not put down that basic mutual resilience.
On the other hand, it’s so easy to say, “Well, I just showed up at an event. I don’t need to do the harder work.” They have to be together from the top and below.
Lew: I concur with Richard, but I’m going to add a piece. Shortly after George Floyd’s death, Richard asked me if I wanted to preach that following Sunday. And in case your people do not know, I’m a person of mixed culture. I’m Black and Native American. And I have to say to Richard that now is a time for those who do not consider themselves oppressed to have their helpers and others speak for them—speak from their heart as to the issues concerning the nation, the world.
It’s important to have our partners raise their voices and be recognized and known, because silence is generally translated into agreement. But if the voices are being raised, if voices are being heard, then that’s not just agreement with the status quo.
And yes, I could raise my voice a lot, and I do. But am I a voice crying in the wilderness, or do I have all these other partners crying with me? Bringing grassroot partners along is an important piece of changing our entire societal structure. That’s what it took with Dr. Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement to bring the rest of what used to be silent voices along with him—to raise up the issues and finally get a civil rights law passed. That’s an important part of where we are today.
“I could raise my voice a lot, and I do. But am I a voice crying in the wilderness, or do I have all these other partners crying with me? Bringing grassroot partners along is an important piece of changing our entire societal structure.”Click to Tweet
Also, let’s not forget the others who tried to do things to assist in that whole process. Before COVID-19 hit in February, I was up on the ridge. Wood-sculpture artists had said to me, “I understand that you guys do a garden tour once a year. I want to donate one of my sculptures to you so you can bid it off for people to buy it.” Well, unfortunately, we were not able to do a garden tour this year. But this is something that flows out of hearts because the relationships have been built. It’s extremely important that we keep those things in mind as well.
Anne: Yeah. That’s a beautiful way to close. Thank you both very much.
Richard: Thank you so very much for the invitation.
Lew: Thank you.
The Reverend Deacon Lewis Sitting Panther Powell (Cherokee/Saponi) is the Indigenous ministries missioner for the Diocese of Northern California. He is a graduate of the Episcopal School for Deacons in Berkeley, California, and serves on the staff of St. John’s the Evangelist Episcopal Church in Chico, California. He is an advocate for addressing the effects of the Doctrine of Discovery in the church.
The Very Rev. Yale serves the congregation of St. John the Evangelist Episcopal Church in Chico, California. He is also the appointed clergyperson who presides over meetings of the Superior Deanery in the Northern California Diocese.