Flames, smoke, disruption, and anxiety defined life in southern California in October, as raging wildfires forced the temporary evacuation of over a half million residents. So when the time for InterVarsity’s annual fall conference arrived, November 9-11, San Diego’s InterVarsity ministry team was apprehensive.
They needn’t have worried. “The turnout and participation exceeded expectations,” reported division director James Choung. Students came to fall conference in spite of the turmoil and uncertainty related to the fires.
One Mira Costa Community College student who attended the fall conference had lost her home to the fires just a couple of weeks earlier. “On Sunday morning she gave a powerful testimony of what God had been doing in her life,” reported Lars Almquist, campus ministry staff based at San Diego City College.
Campus ministry and campus life in general was upset as all of the San Diego colleges and universities shut down for a week in mid-October at the height of the fire danger. Seven InterVarsity staff members were evacuated from their homes. Although their homes were intact when they returned, the experience has shaken them, as well as others who were not evacuated.
“We’re not back to normal by any means emotionally,” Lars said. “It still feels like everything is disrupted.”
Despite the emotionally jarring experience, James noted, “a lot of students went out to serve the community.” Lars was pleased that many of the students were asking themselves, “How do we respond as believers in Christ to this situation?”
After settling some evacuated friends and colleagues in his home Lars went to Qualcomm stadium, where thousands of evacuees had gathered. He had gathered up some blankets and spare clothes to donate. At the stadium he met InterVarsity students from a number of schools who had also come to volunteer.
Soon it became apparent that the evacuees were being well-served by corporate donations and hundreds of other volunteers, but the students didn’t leave. “Some people have a much larger resource capacity than we do, but the InterVarsity students felt like they could meet another need that was not being met,” Lars noted. The students began walking around in prayer teams, offering to pray with people about their needs.
The weekend before fall conference Lars organized 15 students from San Diego State University and one student from City College into a clean-up detail. Equipped with masks, work clothes, and cleaning tools, they sifted through ash piles looking for valuables to recover for residents, and hauled debris to the curb for removal.
The students were an encouragement for a number of homeowners who were going through the lonely job of clean-up and recovery. At one home they found a man and his wife with their two teen-age daughters. “They had received a reverse 911 call at 5:00am and fled with only the clothes on their backs, their wallets, and their car. They lost everything else.”
Lars notes that churches attended by InterVarsity staff and students have many people in their congregations who have endured losses. “If the churches need help, we’ll be there,” he said. “We’ll be working until the organizations that are working with needs on the ground no longer need volunteers.”
Among the organizations that need many volunteers right now are those working with the large San Diego area migrant population. The biggest losses, including loss of lives, occurred in this population, but the media coverage of this part of the California wildfire story has been limited.
A number of InterVarsity chapters have already taken special offerings. “There’s been a lot of work trying to get students and resources into places that don’t have them yet,” Lars said.
Inspired by the restoration imagery in the 61st chapter of Isaiah, Lars is anticipating that InterVarsity will be involved with fire relief activities in the San Diego area for months to come.
You can make a direct financial donation to support InterVarsity’s work in San Diego by following this link.