“He will give a crown of beauty for ashes, a joyous blessing instead of mourning, festive praise instead of despair.” —Isaiah 61:3, NLT
As we approached the foot of the ridge, the sunshine previously illuminating our path was slowly shrouded by dense fog. The setting befit the solemnness of our journey. A team of us was about to enter the town of Paradise, California, which a mere 31 days before had been decimated by the state’s deadliest, most destructive fire.
We located a truck on the side of the road, and Stan Freitas emerged, Minister of Hope Christian Church. Defying the devastation around him, Stan’s big smile and huge hugs were enough to immediately brighten any spirit on the darkest day. He was the embodiment of hope itself. And hope is exactly what his church and community needs.
Stan Freitas, minister of Hope Christian Church
The Cross That Did Not Burn
Caravanning up the ridge, we followed Stan’s red truck, a bright spot amidst a pallor of grey. A hush fell inside our vehicle as we hit the outskirts of town. Off to our right, chimneys stood among piles of ash and rubble. On our left, downed trees and burnt-out cars. Here, the demolished hospital where Stan’s wife, Tracy, was employed. There, rows of remains from a mobile home park where Stan’s church members lived.
Then we saw the sign: Hope Christian Church. Turning up the driveway, the property lay in ruins. Yet there at the front stood a 14-foot engraved cross: Love God. Love People. I’d seen news coverage of this cross before arriving; here it was up close—untouched, though the fire had annihilated the entire church building only inches behind it. Surprised, I thought for sure it was made of metal. No, it was wood.
“Now that’s just God showing off!” said one of our team members.
Stan smiled and described how church members built the cross as a focal point for their newly renovated sanctuary—much of the construction they completed themselves. The whole church planned to gather, pray, and dedicate their new space on Friday, November 9, 2018. But on Thursday morning November 8, they received calls to evacuate. By that evening, their new building was no more.
Notice the cross still standing in the back center.
The God who speaks through the cross that did not burn also spoke to the people of Hope through His Word. Stan said it was fitting that he’d pre-planned a sermon series God With Us in the weeks that followed the fire, and one text was 1 Kings 19—after wind, earthquake, and fire, God showed up to Elijah in a gentle whisper.
“God was not in that fire. And He wasn’t in this fire either,” Stan told us. “Satan was loving this fire; he loves to kill and destroy lives. But God was in all the love. We said hi to our neighbors in the past, but now we hug each other and say, ‘I love you.’ I told our church, ‘God whispers because He’s close to you. He’s close to the brokenhearted.’”
After enduring that horrendous day, which he described as “the greatest challenge of my life,” and now ministering to his scattered body of believers, who are displaced to the surrounding towns, Stan keeps hearing the whisper of God.
He looked at our group, directly at Pastor Chris Delfs and CDF’s Mark Briggs, and said: “Calls and texts and emails from you guys, from other ministers, friends, family—that was God saying, ‘Keep going. Keep going.’” Stan paused. “I feel like I was created for this.”
With another big grin Stan declared, “I’m 62, and I told the church I don’t want to retire. I had an overwhelming feeling when the fire was going that God was going to show up. The body of Christ has to show up. Because God shows up at the worst of times. My mission now has totally changed—let’s rebuild each other’s homes, rebuild our church facility, rebuild our town to the glory of God, showing the love and hope of Jesus.”
Not Over Yet
On day two of our visit, we again ascended the ridge behind Stan’s red truck, but this time we headed to Stan’s home. Where his house once stood now matched the ash and rubble of Hope Christian Church.
We drove onto his quiet property set back in the trees. The stillness belied the roar of the blaze that swept through here mere weeks ago. While I admired the breathtaking view of the surrounding hills, valleys, and giant pine trees, Stan told me that before the fire, there were actually so many trees you couldn’t see the neighbors.
“My wife was a city girl. But I wanted some space. So Tracy moved here with me, to this town, to this church,” Stan said, loving tenderness in his voice. He admitted that when this tragedy struck, he wasn’t sure if Tracy would want to stay in Paradise. Would she want to move back to a city, closer to one of their kids, and start over? He would understand if she felt the need to go.
Yet Tracy senses the same as Stan—their ministry isn’t over yet. The people of Hope and the community of Paradise still need them. In the weeks since the fire, as Tracy awaits news about her own job status, she sits at church each Sunday with a friend and distributes donated gift cards to meet the needs of their church family.
Eagerly Stan scoured the soot-filled area and found a long piece of metal that he hoisted in the air. “See this?” It was a decorative bracket, brandished with a fleur-de-lis, that Stan had attached to the front of their home—from it had hung a sign to honor his wife: Villa Tracy. “When we rebuild, I’ll put this back up with a new Villa Tracy sign!”
“Our stuff’s gone. But it’s just stuff, I’ve been preaching that for years. Now we have to live it.”—Stan Freitas
We Have Each Other
We meandered a bit more. Carefully across shattered glass from Tracy’s scorched car, past the charred frame of a former barn, around broken light fixtures and crumbled plaster. Watching Stan examine the remains of his home, I wondered what emotions he was experiencing. Hesitantly I walked over and asked about the ground where he stood.
“This was my man cave,” Stan said wistfully. “I had a spot for each of my kids with their childhood photos and trophies. . . .” After a beat he exclaimed, “Hey! My son’s sword was in this room. I wonder if it melted or if I can find it!” I laughed as he bounded off on his quest. How Stan remained upbeat was truly a gift from God’s Spirit.
“Our stuff’s gone. But it’s just stuff,” Stan said. “I’ve been preaching that for years. Now we have to live it. We have each other. We have our memories. That’s what’s important.”
My approach in coming to Paradise had been as delicate as our steps through the debris. How do you enter into someone’s suffering with grace? How do you stand with them, helpless and protective simultaneously? It’s vulnerable on both sides.
Yet Stan made it easy. He spoke in tears about the fear that gripped him in the unknown. He spoke in relief when every member of his dear church family had been located. Above all, he spoke with confidence in the Lord. “I told the church, ‘This is our defining moment. We’ve been saying every week for eight years: in Christ we always have hope. Now it’s time to prove we have hope in Jesus—always.’”
It was a privilege to simply be present and receive his story.
Stan in the rubble where his house once stood.
As Stan and the rest of the group finished the tour of the property, I stood still for a moment. I breathed in the crisp morning air. It was strange to admit, but despite standing in the aftermath of destruction, I was flooded with peace. I could only attribute it to Stan’s hope. His Spirit-filled, overflowing, contagious hope. We came to encourage him, yet he inspired us at every turn.
Like the sturdy pine trees I could see dotting the Paradise ridge, Stan and Tracy and the people of Hope Christian Church had survived the heat of the flames. And now here they stood, deepening their roots. The Lord will surely use them to cultivate seeds of new life through the weeks and the months and the years to come.
We ended the day and walked back down Stan’s driveway to say our final goodbyes, when a flash of color caught my eye. I stopped in my tracks.
There, in the ash-strewn earth at my feet, a patch of tiny green blades sprouted through.
More from Hope Christian Church
We hope you are inspired by the stories in this issue of The Cornerstone. Thanks for being a part of God’s work to transform churches and lives.
We were so moved by the ways we have seen the Lord working through the people of Hope Christian Church that we want you to have the opportunity to hear even more from them. Please follow the link below to find additional stories and videos from Paradise, California.