“Churches have always been a part of the fabric of life in Fort McMurray. However, this tragic event allowed for greater co-ordination and working together on a daily and weekly basis.”
As we gathered with pastors from across our Fellowship at our General Conference in Montreal, we heard the sudden breaking news of the Fort McMurray wildfires. Together, we watched in disbelief as the fire spread across the community. Homes and buildings were ruined; people were displaced. It became one of the biggest disasters in Canadian history. It’s hard to believe that an entire year has passed since the tragedy. I had an opportunity to visit Fort McMurray a few months ago and was struck by the stories I heard, and by the increase of the reputation of faith in the community.
Children have been uniquely challenged by this disaster. I heard heartbreaking stories about schools needing to make the decision to evacuate children by busing them out of the community. Imagine a child’s not knowing where their parents are and not being able to contact them. Many families were not reunited until much later in the day—in some cases, in another town. This caused significant trauma, especially for young children. I had a chance to visit the Legacy Counselling Centre, a ministry of the PAOC’s Family Christian Centre. Family counsellor Galina MacKenzie explained, “Children are dealing with a lot of stuff—they are having separation anxiety when away from their parents and are having dreams of being kidnapped. This event will be remembered for the rest of their lives.”
The impact on families has been profound. Crises tend to reveal relational fault lines; they don’t create them. When speaking to Pastor Edwin Rideout, lead pastor of Family Christian Centre, he commented, “The wildfires seemed to be a turning point in people’s lives.” With this one crisis, I heard how marriages were strengthened. A couple on the verge of separation and divorce realized how important they were to each other and made a profound decision to stay together. The fire, for many, highlighted the importance of family life and being together. As a result, this past Christmas, the Family Christian Centre did not hold as many events as in previous years. They focused on family events. Children, in particular, did not want to be separated from their parents.
Not only were families strengthened—relationships within the community were enhanced as well. As I have often witnessed in international disasters, crises foster community and cut across occupational, religious and cultural divides. Lampposts in the community read “Stronger Together” or “Safe Resilient Together.” Firefighters took an almost personal stance against the wildfire and determined that no public building, school, hospital or church would be lost. People went out of their way to help their neighbours. One of the last people out of the Beacon Hill community of Fort McMurray was an elderly couple who had Alzheimer’s and were housebound. They left their house and were on the street, but were given a ride by a passing neighbor; they were the last car out of the community.
“People woke up to see what their real purpose was in life,” said Donna, a resident of Fort McMurray who lost everything in the wildfires. “I now prefer to give than to receive.” Donna and her husband, David, were visiting their daughter in town when they realized what was going on back home. They rushed there to try and get their stuff, but the police wouldn’t let them back in. After five weeks of not being able to return home, the couple discovered they had lost everything. “Workers make good money in Fort McMurray, and everyone has a lot of stuff,” said David. It was then the couple realized that “stuff” is not as important as life itself. Donna shared, “Every time I buy something, I now pause to think, Do I really need it? The more stuff I buy, the more stuff I could lose. ” Donna and David were among those assisted by Family Christian Centre and ERDO.
The response of our PAOC Fellowship was rapid and generous. ERDO partnered with Family Christian Centre and assisted approximately 4,000 victims with counselling services, housing placements, and gift cards to purchase food, clothing and hygiene items. Family Christian Centre, with assistance from North Pointe Community Church in Edmonton, supported victims of the fire in getting the help they needed in Edmonton. Once the victims returned to Fort McMurray, in addition to the partnership with Family Christian Centre, ERDO partnered with McMurray Gospel Assembly, NorthLife Fellowship Baptist, Fort City Alliance and All Saints Anglican to provide critical funding to families.
Churches have always been a part of the fabric of life in Fort McMurray. However, this tragic event allowed for greater co-ordination and working together on a daily and weekly basis. Family Christian Centre took the lead in offering counselling services, and North Life Baptist Church established a clothing and household goods distribution centre. It was deeply meaningful to see the body of Christ working together to provide essential services for the community. It was evident that the crisis heightened the quality of trust between church leaders. Reverend Les Somers of NorthLife Baptist Church commented, “I have only been in the city for a year, but I now have 10 years’ worth of relationships.”
Although it has been a year since the wildfires, the people of Fort McMurray are still rebuilding—not only their homes, but their shared lives. As I walked through the Abasand and Beacon Hill communities, I saw the capriciousness of the wildfire. Treetops were unscathed, but on closer examination, trunks were charred. On building sites, there were ugly gaps where homes once stood, right next to homes left intact. Community leaders estimate that about 20 per cent of the population have not returned to Fort McMurray. For some, the wildfire was the catalyst to leave the community. Many were taxi drivers, cleaners or child-care providers who did not have permanent employment and were paid hourly. The closing of the community meant the loss of jobs. These workers have now rebuilt their lives in Edmonton or in other parts of Alberta. This also impacted church life. Pastor Edwin reports that initially church attendance was significantly lower. However, 12 months later, attendance has increased, with new people coming to church for the first time and encountering Christ in profound ways.
David Adcock is ERDO’s chief executive officer. To learn more about ERDO’s crisis response in Fort McMurray, visit www.erdo.ca.
Images courtesy of Brian Bursey. This article appeared in the May/June 2017 issue of testimony, the bimonthly publication of The Pentecostal Assemblies of Canada.