Providing Relief, Depicting Christ: How a Church Served Its Community During the California Fires

Image above provided by New Life Petaluma

On a Sunday night this past October, fires started ripping their way through northern California. At about 4:30 a.m. a member of New Life Christian Church in Petaluma called one of the pastors.

“Hey, there are fires, and people are evacuating. Do we want to open up?”

Just north of Petaluma, Santa Rosa was battling the worst of the fires, and people were fleeing their homes for safety. Nearly a decade earlier, New Life had been established as an evacuation center.

“When we purchased the property about 10 years ago, we wanted to be a relief site, whether it was for an earthquake or some other disaster,” said Pastor Kevin Finkbiner. “So we did things like put two showers in each bathroom so we could really host and house people, and then we registered with the Petaluma Police Department so they would know to send people our way.”

When the time came, it was like flipping a switch. The staff and congregation were both physically and spiritually ready to serve.

A retired fire captain from New Life’s congregation met Kevin at the church in the early hours of the morning. When they pulled up at 5:00 a.m., there was already a family there seeking shelter.

“A pastor in Santa Rosa evacuated with his family, and he figured we’d be open—just knowing who we are and what we’re about,” Kevin said. “He didn’t know we’d be open because we hadn’t said anything. He just knew this was where to go. And he told his church community the same.”

Treating Evacuees Like Guests

The former firefighter walked Kevin through the information, infrastructure, and strategies they’d need to be a good emergency shelter. But New Life wanted to be more than just effective. They were an emergency shelter and a church.

“Our vision was not to just give people a bed and meal but to say, ‘You can’t be in your home right now, but you can be in our home.’” The people who fled to New Life were treated like honored guests, not evacuees.

“Our vision was not to just give people a bed and meal but to say, ‘You can’t be in your home right now, but you can be in our home.’”—Kevin Finkbiner

“I think it was one of the main things that set us apart from other evacuation centers,” Kevin said. “We got word over and over again from officials and law enforcement and volunteers that there’s something different about this community and what’s happening at New Life.”

The retired fire captain helped New Life implement the same leadership structure as firefighters. They assigned an incident commander, a logistics chief, and a liaison to the media (Pastor Kevin). Kevin utilized his contacts to tell the media they were ready for evacuees.

“It was on the morning news at 6:00 a.m. that we were open,” he said. “I think by 10:00 that morning we had over 300 evacuees with us and about 200 volunteers.”

As the morning went on, New Life dedicated a volunteer to handle the church’s social media, primarily using their Facebook page to share new information. “We got on Facebook and said, ‘We need sleeping bags, we need cots, we need bedding,’ and the community stepped up,” Kevin said. “I don’t think anybody ever had to sleep on the floor. Everybody had air mattresses for the first three days until the Red Cross brought cots.”

 

Image above provided by New Life Petaluma

 

While New Life had planned on being a relief center from the beginning, they had no idea how much help they’d be providing.

“We turned our children’s room into a medical center. We had at least three doctors and nurses 24 hours a day. Initially we didn’t know if this was going to be a one-day thing or overnight or what,” Kevin said. “We ended up housing people for seven nights.”

Serving the Community, Spreading the Kingdom

During this time, the congregation got to know hundreds of evacuees and volunteers from throughout the community.

“People from our community came out, and they just wanted to serve,” Kevin said. “I think it was probably about 50-50 New Lifers and non New Lifers partnering together.”

Evacuees and volunteers grew curious about the church.

“We’ve seen people who were volunteers coming to church regularly now because they didn’t know that church was like this,” Kevin said. “We’ve had people who were victims of the fire come to church.”

One Spanish-speaking family’s story stood out to Kevin in particular. He recalled: “A few days into the fire, one of our translators came to me and said, ‘This family of four wants to talk with you. They want to know about God.’ Through the translator they said, ‘We don’t have any sort of church background, but the way you all have cared for us these past three days—we want to know about Jesus.’”

“We don’t have any sort of church background, but the way you all have cared for us these past three days—we want to know about Jesus.”

After a 45-minute conversation, all four members of that family decided to give their lives to Christ. “We prayed with the translator right there in the lobby,” Kevin said. “I came home and burst into tears, partially from the sadness of the devastation, partially from the beauty of that moment with this family.”

During the crisis, another retired firefighter was serving as a volunteer photographer. Like so many members of Sonoma County, he just wanted to do his part. Soon after he showed up to church and told Kevin, “I don’t have a church. When I was a firefighter, that was my tribe. But being around New Life this week, you guys are my tribe now, and this is going to be my church.”

Feeding the Hungry

With a church full of evacuees, New Life suddenly had hundreds of mouths to feed—for eight days.

“We provided every meal the entire time, but we never had to pay for food,” Kevin said. “Sonoma County really came together. The owner of the local Chick-fil-A goes to New Life, and they provided a breakfast and a dinner. We had local restaurants bringing every meal. Everything was donated all the way through, and we were able to provide really good meals.”

After they hosted people for a week, emergency shelter was no longer the biggest priority. As people found other places to stay, New Life transitioned from an evacuation center to a resource center.

“We had so much food, water, clothing, and toiletries,” Kevin said. “The building next to us gave us a warehouse for three weeks, and we acted as a distribution center. We’ve given out 1,200 boxes—something like 2.5 semi truck trailers full of goods.”

Far From Over

They’ve done a lot to serve Sonoma County, but New Life’s role is far from over. Northern California is no longer burning, but what’s still standing is covered in ash and littered with debris.

“The fires ended, but for people who have lost their homes, this is their reality—not for a few weeks but for the next couple of years,” Kevin said. “So now we’re talking about mid-range steps and a long-term plan to get people back on their feet. We’re working with housing and other churches to create larger partnerships. We’ve also created a fire relief team that’s being headed up by our founding pastor. We’re looking at this as a two-year project.”

 

Image above provided by New Life Petaluma.

 

People have pitched in to help fund the church’s ongoing relief efforts, donating $50,000 plus $10,000 in gift cards for New Life to distribute.

Changing People’s Minds About Church

New Life didn’t set out to confront people’s misconceptions about the church. But for some, that was a side effect of the way New Life loved and served their community.

“I think it’s changed the perception of church in Sonoma County,” Kevin said.

New Life’s efforts were highly visible. They made themselves a rallying point for the whole community to step up and support its most vulnerable members. And if you were on the outside looking in, you would’ve seen a local church functioning like a highly organized relief agency that was motivated by a deep love for people.

“I wanted people to know what was going on, so twice a day I’d go Facebook Live,” Kevin explained. “It was insane to see the response. In one video I said, ‘Tell people we’re here. Here’s what we have. We love you, and you’re not alone. There’s a warm place to sleep, and we’ve got food for you, a medical team ready to meet your needs, counselor ready to talk, and a pastoral team here to meet your spiritual needs.’ It got something like 13,000 views.”

The community took notice.

“Two weeks later I was at my daughter’s soccer game, and I had random strangers coming up to me and hugging me. They said, ‘Thank you for what you guys did. Thank you for the way your church welcomed people in.’”

Some of these interactions were more bizarre than others.

“That same morning, I got rear-ended on the way to the game. The woman who hit me said, ‘Are you the pastor at New Life? Oh my gosh, I’ve been watching your Facebook videos all week long. I can’t believe I hit the pastor at New Life!’”

They talked about how seeing so many people lose so much made their little accident seem pretty insignificant. The woman said, “You know, I’ve never really gone to church. But then I watched you guys . . . if I ever do check out church, I’m going to come to your church. I love what you did.”

“Those conversations are happening all the time right now,” Kevin noted.

Some people are opening up to the idea of church for the first time. Some are looking at Christians with a new perspective. Others are even giving their lives to Christ.

“One of my core beliefs is that the more people rub shoulders with New Life members, the more they’re going to want to meet Jesus.”

That is what being the church is all about.

Continuing the Story

The story of what God is doing in New Life is still forming. We believe that through the efforts of the local church, the body of Christ works best together.

To learn about how CDF Capital can help your church, check out our Financial Capital options for churches.

Image above: Dusty Rubeck (CDF Capital President), Kevin Finkbiner

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