Faith under fire
by Keri Vermeulen
The congregation of Cariboo Christian Life Fellowship (CCLF) in 108 Mile, BC, had been so excited about the month of July. The church had planned to celebrate Canada’s 150th birthday all month long, with music, parties, Friday night gatherings and special Sunday sermons where Lead Pastor Rick Barker would preach through Psalm 150.
But on Thursday July 6, their joyful anticipation suddenly turned to fear and uncertainty when their community was evacuated due to rapidly growing forest fires in the Cariboo. Plans for their summer celebrations “went up in smoke, so to speak,” shares Barker, who himself was evacuated along with his flock, who were scattered to surrounding areas of safety, including Kamloops, Lac La Hache, and the Interlakes area.
Since July 6, the Cariboo Regional District (CRD) has issued 19 evacuation orders and 12 evacuation alerts, covering approximately 24,000 square kilometres. More than 35,000 people have been directly affected by the evacuation orders and alerts, including the City of Williams Lake and the District of 100 Mile House. The CRD has confirmed at least 41 homes (and likely more) have been lost. Three families connected to Barker’s church have lost their homes to the Gustafsen Fire.
So what happens when a church community is scattered, and how does a pastor minister to his flock who are burdened by uncertainty and worry? Barker says life immediately changed, and a new normal had to be embraced. He and his wife, Marci, took up temporary residence with friends in the Interlakes area, just northeast of 100 Mile House. A lot of his congregation went to Kamloops, shares Barker, who was allowed to return home on July 22, after two weeks of evacuation. “My associate Pastor Gary was there – and he did a service live-streamed from TRU (Thompson Rivers University), and we had services at Lac la Hache for our people there, and I was in the Interlakes area and I did services there. It’s not the way I thought we would become multi-church services, but there we were.”
Barker says during the two-week evacuation, as a pastor he felt “waves of despair, displacement, and my sheep being scattered,” but he also sensed something far stronger – the presence and direction of God, and new community relationships.
Roe Lake Hall became a hub of activity for fire relief efforts in the Interlakes area, community gatherings and Sunday church services. Residents worked shoulder to shoulder with volunteers loading and unloading trucks of food, and shared space with local pets and livestock, who were helped by CDART, the Canadian Disaster Animal Response Team. “Basically, church was in Noah’s Ark” laughs Barker, adding it was like “church every day” in the little hall, and often, his wife would break to pray with someone who had broken down in tears.
The sense of community that emerged through the smoke and falling ash was beautiful, says Barker. “We would work side by side, together with tattoos and rough necks and nose rings – our people – and they would be working with little old ladies and cowboys and children,” describes Barker. “These are people who would not normally work together. We were meeting people we wouldn’t meet otherwise, praying with them. Many new relationships were forged in the fire. I see God’s hand all over this.”
While many evacuees in the Cariboo clustered in surrounding communities and experienced new, face-to-face relationships, others, like Williams Lake resident Alexa Ogilvie had to rely on social media for connection with her community, and to orchestrate the transport of beloved cats. Ogilvie, a social worker, was on vacation in Europe when Williams Lake was put on evacuation alert. “I felt pretty useless being in Amsterdam and dealing with a nine-hour time difference,” Ogilvie shares. When the evacuation occurred, her friend was able to transport her feline friends and a few personal effects to safety in Kamloops. From there, she put out a social media plea for anyone travelling to the Lower Mainland to deliver her cats to White Rock.
“I posted on Facebook asking for a huge favour: if anyone was going to White Rock could they bring my cats. My friend on Facebook shared it, and one of her friends, who I had never met in my life, was going to White Rock,” says Ogilvie. “Five minutes later my friend said I’ve got someone who is going to White rock. I didn’t even know this person. It was so surreal. It was so God.” Being thousands of miles from home during the evacuation, Ogilvie was forced to trust God in a deeper way than ever before as she was pushed out of her comfort zone. As a sufferer of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and anxiety, Ogilvie bravely shares that her “triggers” to episodes with these disorders are fire and floods. When these fears become overwhelming, she is a repeated “checker”, often finding it hard to leave her home in the morning or get to sleep at night until anything that could cause a fire or a flood has been checked repeatedly. But faced with a forest fire that she had no control over, while in Europe, Ogilvie turned to her greatest source of peace – Jesus.
“God has been my Saviour. He brought me peace, and giving my fears and worries over to him was what got me through it,” she shares. “Everytime I’m going through something, I say ‘God I can’t do this, take it from me.’ That peace and that sense of free comes over me.”
While Ogilvie waits in White Rock with her cats for word she can return to Williams Lake, folks in the 100 Mile House area, like Pastor Rick Barker and his congregation, try to settle back into life, while remaining under fire alert. And Barker wants his flock to remain under another kind of alert.
“We want to have a new normal now and be awakened. If this was a wake-up call, then let’s be awakened. We’re going to be on alert for a long time, and spiritually we should remain on alert,” Barker shares.