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California congregation returns home, two weeks after being uprooted by deadly mudslides

Posted on: January 26, 2018 3:38 PM
The Revd Aimee Eyer-Delevett, second from right, rector of All Saints-by-the-Sea Episcopal Church in Montecito, California, chats with parishioners at Trinity Episcopal Church in Santa Barbara, where members of both congregations worshiped while All Saints was under an evacuation order due to the recent mudslides.
Photo Credit: Sheri Benninghoven via Episcopal News Service
Related Categories: California, disaster, fire, USA

[Episcopal News Service, by David Paulsen] The Revd Aimee Eyer-Delevett and her congregation heard on Wednesday (24 January) that they could return to their church for the first time in two weeks, but they have no expectations of an immediate return to normal life or business as usual at All Saints-by-the-Sea Episcopal Church in Montecito, California. Fire and flood have changed everything for this community sandwiched between mountain and ocean on the east side of Santa Barbara.

All Saints and its neighbours have suffered weeks of disaster, from the massive wildfire that threatened in December to the 9 January mudslides that have killed at least 21, with two people still missing. The church and its parish school have been closed since authorities ordered a mandatory evacuation from the neighbourhoods in the path of the mudslides. The church wasn’t damaged, but the sprawling debris field left Highway 101 impassable and split the congregation in two, with parishioners on the Santa Barbara side isolated from those in the region to the east and south.

“It’s been a very difficult time,” Eyer-Delevett told Episcopal News Service by cell-phone. “The community has suffered a collective trauma, the entire community of Montecito.”

Her uprooted congregation has found solace in faith and fellowship. Until they can worship in their own church again, All Saints parishioners are attending services at Episcopal churches in Santa Barbara and Ventura and at home churches outside the evacuation zone. After Highway 101 reopened last Sunday (21 January), all are invited to a “Service of Healing and Hope” today (Friday) at Trinity Episcopal Church in Santa Barbara.

All Saints clergy and lay leaders, meanwhile, are focused on providing pastoral care to their now scattered members, including to the newest member – a baby boy, born last week to Montecito residents who have been staying with a fellow parishioner in Santa Barbara. Such generosity has been replicated in countless ways across the region since early December, when the Thomas Fire began threatening.

The wildfire grew to become the largest in California’s history, and though Montecito and the Santa Barbara area were largely spared by the fire, the smoke and ash still upended daily life for weeks.

It also forced All Saints to cancel Sunday services on 10 and 17 December. Trinity Episcopal Church in downtown Santa Barbara invited the All Saints congregation to join Trinity for worship on 17 December, but then Trinity had to cancel its service, too, when the downtown church became part of the evacuation zone.

All Saints leaders were able to return to their church on 19 December, just in time to prepare a full complement of Christmas Eve and Christmas services. They turned their focus to clearing ash from church grounds, including facilities used by the Friendship Center, an elder-care day centre that operates on All Saints grounds.

Then, heavy rain began to fall.