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Faith in action in the wake of fires

Local church members set up a winter coat drive

Posted: November 21, 2008 9:12 p.m.
Updated: November 22, 2008 4:55 a.m.

What does an event like the catastrophic fires of last weekend do to a person's faith? What happens to a person's spirit when they watch their home go up in flames in an event the insurance company will call "an act of God?"

Where is God in the random suffering of every day, the small and the large tragedies and injustices, the common pains we suffer everyday and the spectacular tragedies we fortunately are mostly spared but not always spared, not for everyone, not every time?

"Where is God in suffering?"

During his Nov. 16 sermon, Reverend Ricky Hoyt answered: "An answer for Unitarian Universalists is: God is in the hands and hearts of people who work to prevent suffering when we can, people who respond to suffering as it's happening to make it less and people who rush in after the fact with comforting words and deeds. The Unitarian Universalist faith doesn't relieve us of responsibility because ‘God will provide,' but requires our action because we are the help God provides."

What should have been a clear, windless November Sunday proved to be the complete opposite. Visible flames that were at least five miles away appeared within heaven's reach. Our nearest neighbor city, Sylmar, never seemed this close before.

Renee Toensing, a member of the Unitarian Universalist church of SCV, desperately wanted to help these families that live so close.

"My prayers today have centered on the newly homeless that have been so affected by the horrific fire storms, especially the people in the mobile home park in Sylmar," she said.

Within a matter of three days she had me, and other church members Betsy Donley, Barbara Cogswell and Trish Lester on board for the ride.

For me, there was a personal reason behind my jump to help victims of fire. My husband Eddie Bushman, Los Angeles City Fire Chief for the Disaster Preparedness Section, was gone for last week's earthquake drill. When he finally got home Friday night, he was called to duty for the weekend doing search and rescue in the Sylmar mobile park. Every firefighter seemed to be called in, whether directly to the fire or to be "moved up" to cover those that were.

I have understood what losing everything to fire means. It proved to be a weekend of nervous eye-twitching until he walked through the door this past Monday night and collapsed on the couch.

Five hundred mobile homes and 100 businesses lost. An almost incomprehensible number of families were affected. And here it was, the start of winter. What could we do? How to ask people, in this current economy, to give to yet another cause or charity?

Then it hit us: Families will be purchasing new coats for their growing children just about now. What happens with last year's coats?

Asking SCV residents to go through their closets and give their new, or gently used, coats seemed a manageable request. We chose the magic number 600, as we were inundated with that number many times in the press.

All we had to do was advertise our church doing the collection and then deliver the coats weekly to the San Fernando/Sylmar Goodwill Southern California. Goodwill has partnered with the American Red Cross of Greater Los Angeles to accept our coats to assist victims of the wildfires. The value of the donations will translate into free vouchers for fire victims.

"Seems all systems are go, Houston. T-minus three minutes and counting," Betsy rejoiced after her ninth phone call putting the program together. "We'll be watching. I have already enlisted a few folks to assist us at area schools," she said. We also have engaged donations from the Betty Ferguson Foundation and Hunger Defense Fund as well as contacted local schools for students' assistance.

Our church is very committed to serving our community any way that it can. Whether we're giving away our loose plate collections to local charities every month or making dinners for the homeless shelter, part of the Affirmation Statement we read aloud at the beginning of each weekly service states: "Love is the spirit of this church, made visible through service." We stand firmly behind it for our own community and for Sylmar.

Starting Sunday and on every Sunday through Jan. 4, simply drop off coats and jackets at the SCV Senior Center, 22900 Market St., Newhall, anytime between 9:30 a.m. and 11:30 a.m. (Sunday mornings only).
The church will do the rest. By serving as a collection team for the garments, congregation members will be able to track their progress toward the church's goal of warming at least 600 homes.

The church will be making regular deliveries to the Goodwill, and through that organization's partnership with the American Red Cross, fire victims will receive a voucher to spend on a coat or jacket at the Goodwill store in Sylmar.

Donors will be furnished with a charitable donation receipt from the church, if desired.

For more information, call (661) 254-7866.

Eve Bushman is with Unitarian Universalists of SCV.


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