“God never wastes a hurt.”
That mentality motivated Stan Freitas and his congregation to action this summer. Having survived the trauma of fire, they are now ministering to others affected by flames.
The members of Hope Christian Church watched in November 2018 as much of their town, many of their homes, and their entire church building burned to the ground in what was known as the Camp Fire in Paradise, California.
Then this summer 2021, smoke poured in the mountainous region of northern California again during the Dixie Fire, devastating the nearby mountain town of Greenville, California. Seeing the smoke created palpable emotional and even physical reactions for the Paradise residents.
“It’s like PTSD. Now smoke, power outages, high winds trigger it all back,” Stan said.
The people at Hope Christian Church were watching the news, smelling the smoke, and sitting around in a funk, Stan noted, until God put an idea on their hearts: they should use the knowledge they gained to help the current victims of the Dixie Fire.
“We’re experts at this,” Stan noted.
One of the things Hope learned was that gift cards are helpful after a disaster.
“People kept bringing clothes to us after the fire,” Stan explained. “But we had no place to put them in our temporary housing. Then someone began handing out gift cards instead. With gift cards, people can go get food at restaurants or buy groceries or get anything they have room for.”
Stan challenged the members of Hope to donate money so they could buy gift cards for the people impacted by the Dixie Fire. Stan’s goal for their small church was to donate $500, but the members gathered $2,000 in donations. A megachurch in the area heard about Hope’s fundraising and contributed another $5,000.
“I was in tears because that’s like a miracle to us,” Stan said.
“I have seen how the Body of Christ helps people heal. It’s beautiful.” –Stan Freitas
The second thing Hope Christian Church learned was that partnering with a local church after a disaster was best. If you swoop in and help random people, you leave with no connection, they discovered. But if you resource a local church, they remain a continuous presence in the area and become further empowered to minister over the long haul of rebuilding.
A church member from Hope had a longtime connection with the minister of Mt. Lassen Community Church in Chester, California. Because the town of Chester was untouched by the Dixie Fire, Mt. Lassen members had the ability to minister to people around them who lost homes and businesses. With the $7,000, Hope purchased gift cards and gave them all to Mt. Lassen—who handed the gift cards directly to people in need.
HELPING PEOPLE HEAL
Physical needs weren’t the only lessons learned as Hope Christian Church experienced tragedy.
“I have seen how the Body of Christ helps people heal,” said Stan. “It’s beautiful.”
Though it’s been 3 years since their tragedy, Stan realized, “In our small groups, we still constantly talk about the fire. You get groups of people gathering around, and I’ll have some other subject or text, but somehow it comes around to ‘since the fire. . . .’ It’s all about listening.”
In the time since Hope went through the Camp Fire, their congregation has shifted. Right before the tragedy, the church had dedicated a new building, created to accommodate their growing attendance, which had been at 300 people. But after the fire, many chose to move away from the town of Paradise.
“There is still much hurt and trauma and a long way to go—but great opportunities to spread Jesus.” –Stan Freitas
“After a year of saying tearful goodbyes to so many dear friends and brothers and sisters moving out of the area, we were down to 60,” Stan reported. With the church building gone, the congregation met in the nearby college town of Chico.
“The evangelist in me wondered if we should stay in Chico because it’s a bigger pond to fish in, but the Jesus in me made me want to move the church back up on the ridge and help the hurting people back up there.”So Hope leased a building in the nearby town of Magalia that was up in the mountains, close to Paradise, and immediately attendance jumped from 60 to 100.
“I thought, ‘Here we go again!’ Then COVID-19 came!” Stan said with a shake of his head.
As all churches did, Stan and the worship team shifted online in 2020, each contributing to Sunday services from their homes. But Hope Christian Church never missed a Sunday, from the fire onward. New people have found their way to the church, both online and in person again.
“We now are making plans for a new facility back on our land in Paradise,” Stan said. “We are able to use the same use permit we had in 2018, which will save us a lot of money and get us a facility just under 800,000 square feet. With a steel building, it will be able to be transformed with additional walls—this will allow us to grow back up to 300.”
Stan excitedly shared a recent news report: the town of Paradise is now at 3,000 people, and with their rate of growth and rebuilding, it is currently the fastest-growing town in California.
PASTOR OF DISASTER
CDF Capital team members had the blessing of visiting Stan and the members of Hope Christian Church a month after the Camp Fire in 2018.
“I still remember you being a first responder and taking your call while there was still smoke in the air,” Stan recently told the CDF Capital leadership. “You helped me, and more importantly, you helped Hope Church and many others.”
Even as he stood in the ashes of the building that CDF Capital investors had helped fund, Stan’s hope never wavered.
“I was in shock but convinced that God is at work. I have asked Him to give me more years to spend the rest of my ministry helping to rebuild Hope and the town of Paradise. There is still much hurt and trauma and a long way to go—but great opportunities to spread Jesus.”
Then Stan got a big grin on his face: “For years some friends have called me the ‘pastor of disaster’ as a joke, but it’s really happened. I AM the pastor of disaster!” he said with a laugh. “We’re the little church who won’t quit—that’s who we are. If our story of endurance helps someone’s faith, how cool is that?!”
Read about Hope Christian Church and the Camp Fire in 2018.