By Andi Bourne

Offering healing and hope in the wake of destruction


Andi Bourne, Pathfinder

Cheri Thompson stands in front of the six banners representing the resiliency of nature and the human spirit.

SEELEY LAKE – "Once [Cheri Thompson] mentioned the idea to me, it was like, yeah, this is what we need to do for our congregation and for our community to help them heal," said Reverend Carrie Benton, pastor of Mountain Lakes Presbyterian Church. "[The banners] will remind them that there is hope, this devastation is not the end of the things and through God's power we can get through devastating times."

Thompson felt led by God to make a visual art piece to bring healing to her congregation following the 2017 Rice Ridge Fire. As the liturgical artist for Mountain Lakes Presbyterian Church, she created a series of six banners representing the resiliency of nature and the human spirit. Now these banners have been passed on to Elaine Klein of Oroville, Calif. in hopes that they will bring healing and hope following the Camp Fire last November.

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Thompson moved to Seeley Lake in 1975. She and her husband Steve experienced the 2007 Jocko Lakes Fire coming within a half mile of their home and the Liberty and Rice Ridge Fires of 2017 that came within three miles of their home.

"We are very familiar with the emotions that accompany forest fires," said Thompson.

Thompson came up with the idea for each banner and created it to accompany Mountain Lake Church's journey through Lent, the six-week period leading up to Easter. Embedded in each of the panels is a symbol that tied directly into the scripture for the week.

Benton said Thompson has an amazing spiritual gift with her art.

"I'm so grateful for Cheri. That she has such a sensitive spirit. She will get an idea and the Holy Spirit just kind of breathes on it," said Benton. "This was all her inspiration knowing what the scripture readings were and knowing what we had gone through as a community."

The scripture for the first week of Lent was John 11:1-44, the story of Lazarus. The accompanying banner was the regular forest and the known landscape with a sun symbolically shining over the lush green.

The second week, Benton preached from John 13:1-17, the story of Jesus washing his disciples' feet. The second banner represented the power of fire with a deer hidden amidst the flames.

Week three, the congregation turned to John 18:12-27, the story of Jesus being questioned by the religious leaders and Peter's denial. The banner was a blackened forest filled with devastation and loss of hope. Thompson said this represented a time of rest. Two loaves of bread appear like rocks at the bottom. The bread is symbolic of being fed and nurtured by Christ in the midst of loss.

The congregation continued in John 18:28-40 with the story of Jesus before Pilate for week four. The banner represented the beginning with small hints of green coming from the stumps. Upon close inspection a hidden pathway can be seen in the bottom left corner showing a way is becoming clear.

During the fifth week, the lesson took readers through Jesus being sentenced to be crucified and his crucifixion in John 19:1-22. The fifth banner showed progression with signs of new green growth. A small red quail is hidden among the trees showing signs of new life.

The final week was the story of the empty tomb and Jesus appearing to Mary Magdalene in John 20:1-18. The banner represents renewed life showing the landscape transformation and a forest brimming with new life and hope. Thompson said while similar to the forest in the first banner, it is a different forest with new possibilities.

"I didn't want people to forget that as tragic as it is, it is part of nature," said Thompson. "People found it very emotional."

"It really helped us with healing and processing a lot of the stuff that we were going through as a community and just how to deal with that reality," said Benton.

Following Lent, the banners were taken down through last summer. However, towards the end of the summer, members of the congregation asked if the banners could be re-hung.

"It was a reminder that there are fires and shootings and craziness and chaos everywhere but we know that God is still with us and with those people and God is doing something," said Benton. "Despite what is happening there can be healing, there can be restoration, there can be redemption. It helped remind us that God is in this business of healing and this is what God is about."

At the end of November, Thompson suggested they send the banners to California to offer hope and healing in the wake of the Camp Fire in northern California. Thompson is originally from California. She thought Paradise would be a good place to send them because of the connection through wildfire and the environment.

The Camp Fire, which started Nov. 8, 2018, was the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in California history. After exhibiting extreme fire behavior through the community of Concow, an urban firestorm burned through the densely populated foothill town of Paradise. According to Inciweb, the Camp Fire burned 153,336 acres, destroyed 14,500 residences, 528 commercial structures and thousands of secondary structures and killed 85 civilians.

"Had the wind shifted [in 2017], we would have been in the exact same boat," said Thompson. "We actually have an empathy, a feeling for what it was like."

While Benton and members of the congregation were originally a little reluctant, they decided it was a great way to connect and become a part of God's greater plan to bring healing to the world.

"We aren't getting rid of them - it is with a purpose and goal in mind that they can also bring comfort and hope to people who went through an experience much worse than we went through," said Benton. "However, they can be used by God to help people bring about healing to remind them of God's goodness, hope and restoration and of our job participating with God in that."

Benton contacted the Presbytery of Santa Barbara, the council of 21 Presbyterian churches in the area. Klein, Clerk of Session for Oroville Presbyterian Church, responded to the email accepting the banners.

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Klein lives in Oroville, Calif. about 20 miles south of Paradise. Her husband worked in fire for more than 30 years. His son and grandsons also worked for California Fire.

"Fire talk is just part of our family," said Klein. "In the fall they always came together and talked their fire stories."

Klein started working for Cal Fire around five year ago. She staffs the emergency call center during natural disasters answering questions and providing information to the public. She staffed the call center during the Camp Fire.

"When you work 12 hour days for over a week answering questions, it puts you right there," said Klein.

Klein had family members who lost their homes and rental property to the Camp Fire. She shared the story of her granddaughter Nichole Jolly who was working as a registered nurse at Feather River Hospital in Paradise Nov. 8 when the Camp Fire swept through the community.

Klein said when Feather River received the evacuation order they evacuated all the patients to Oroville Hospital or Chico Hospital. Once all the patients were evacuated, Jolly got in her truck and headed north out of Paradise towards her home in upper Magalia.

Jolly called her husband Nick and told him she was not going to make it because the road was blocked with trees and burned out cars.

"She told Nick, 'Take care of the kids,'" said Klein recalling Jolly's conversation. "He told her, 'Don't you die! You get out and you run. You run down that road.'"

Klein said Jolly left her truck and ran down the road. She passed a least one burned out car before she came to a car that had one of her co-workers inside. Jolly got in and Klein said first they prayed. After trying to continue down the road without much luck, Jolly again got out and ran.

Klein said the heat was so intense that Jolly's loose-fitting scrub pants caught on fire. When Jolly came to a fire truck parked along the road, firefighers opened the door and let her in. She joined other evacuees in the truck but they couldn't move the truck.

"All of the sudden a bull dozer came and cleared a path for them. They made it back to Feather River Hospital and she went back to work [Jolly only experienced a superficial burn]," said Klein. "If it hadn't have been for that bulldozer that cleared the path for that fire truck, they all would not have made it. Yes, she went through a horrific thing, but there were so many people that did that day."

When Klein drove up to Paradise for the first time, she said it looked like a war zone with burned out cars next to the scar of where a house used to stand. Klein said only 15 building permits have been issued.

"They are clearing lots with the help of FEMA and private contractors," said Klein. "When you lose 14,000 homes, you have to look at the number of people that affects. It affects so many things and so many people. It's going to be a long, slow process."

* * * * *

When Klein received the email from her Presbytery regarding the liturgical banners, "It just touched my soul – that the person who made those banners wanted to share them. I felt that those banners needed to be here somewhere."

Klein's church leadership agreed to accept the banners. Mountain Lakes laid hands on the banners and prayed over them on Palm Sunday, April 14 before mailing them.

"I'm very grateful that the Mountain Lakes Church put out an invitation for someone to accept the banners – it's like a sisterhood or brotherhood," said Klein. "I will make sure they get somewhere where they are going to do some good."

Klein feels strongly the banners belong in Paradise to help the community with healing. Currently they are reaching out to churches in Paradise to pass them along.

"I feel God is speaking through this. You can always talk to Him and He is always there," said Klein. "This is just a little piece of Him given back to the community of Paradise. It is the Holy Spirit saying, 'It is going to be okay. You are going to heal. You've been through this but you are going to be okay.'"

Andi Bourne, Pathfinder

Five of the six banners had a symbol hidden within the nine-foot tall banner. Pictured from left to right are the deer, loaves of bread, hidden path and red quail.


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