One Year Later: Hidden Pines Fire update
Today marks one year since the Hidden Pines Fire destroyed our home at Camp Wilderness Ridge.
The fire started on the morning of October 13, 2015, and we monitored it throughout the day. All day long it looked like the fire, which started less than a mile from us, was moving away as it was growing. By about 3pm, the smoke was thick enough that our almost-1-year-old, Riley, was coughing a lot, so we decided to head to Austin for the night. Though all signs pointed that we'd be outside the path of the fire, we said to ourselves, "Well, this will be good practice for a real evacuation," and we spent some time thinking of what we'd pack up in the event that we'd never return to our home. I'm glad we did that, because we were able to preserve a few keepsake items, as well as legal and financial documents that would have been difficult to replace. That night, we stayed with family in Austin, monitored the fire situation, and prayed for the community that we had gotten to know over the last four years.
The next day, since we were in town, we made a Costco run and picked up diapers and some groceries. It felt like just any other day. It wasn't until we were on our way home that one of the other staff members called and informed us that the fire had turned and was headed toward camp. Everyone along Park Road 1C was being evacuated. We went back to our family's house to wait and pray.
I remember that we had been pouring over fire reports all night and it was about 11pm when George Martinez, a friend from Bastrop FD, called to let us know that his crew had been through the Wilderness Ridge property after the fire had burned through and to expect that all buildings had been lost. I thanked him for solid info and his heartfelt empathy. I hung up, then found Claire and asked her to come out onto the porch with me, away from the gathered family. I hugged her and told her, "It's all gone." We cried together for only a minute, then prayed and thanked God for what we knew was true in the situation. For whatever reason, we made this little list of good news:
- We are alive.
- Becca Riley is safe.
- We have a dog and a chinchilla. (This was comforting in the moment, as the chin' was our anniversary gift to each other, though we were sad to have to re-home him after a few days.)
- We had time to pack things to get through the next few days. (There's a photo below of what we got out before the fire.)
- God is good all the time. He is in control, and we are not worried.
It Wasn't Hard to Lose the "Stuff"
I remember that a couple of weeks later a reporter from KXAN wanted to go with us to our home on the first day we were allowed back on site. She filmed us looking around through the rubble and then interviewed us with our destroyed home in the background. She kept trying to ask very emotionally-loaded questions, like "What was the hardest thing to lose?" and "How does it feel to take in all this wreckage where your home used to be?" In the resulting video shown on the nightly news, they had chopped the interview down to only the soundbites that sounded the worst. Claire would respond to a question, "Well, of course it's hard..." and it would cut to clip of her digging through her grandma's dishes or whatever. They wouldn't include the rest of the sentence, where Claire actually said, "Well of course it's hard, but God is good and we believe it's all just stuff and we have hope for the good things to come. Look, you can even see that in the fact that there's already flowers & grass growing over there!" They even cut all of my responses from the interview and cropped me out of the frame, which sort of played up this whole false narrative of a single mom going through a terrible loss with her itty-bitty baby. And THIS was the story that got syndicated to the news stations around the country. People sent me the link on Facebook, and I deleted it wherever I saw it. It felt sickening to have the story we already knew God was writing be told by someone trying their hardest to cut Him out.
Honestly, the "stuff" we lost just didn't matter to us. We were able to joke about it within a few hours. God had been preparing us beforehand for the physical loss. We had been reading a lot of Philippians 3 & 4, and were ready to go without a lot of the things that the average American family has.
Claire puts it well in her Facebook post that the harder losses were our "sense of security, direction, and control." We spent a lot of the last year just going with the flow, as we went from one place to the next.
Our ministry looked for 9 months for a place to rebuild. I walked at least 6 properties that our Board of Directors was considering strongly enough to bring the staff on site for a walk-through. Each time, we'd envision how to best lay out the ministry upon the property, where our homes might be, where our children might grow up. And each time, some roadblock would come up and the land purchase would fall through. There had to be at least 3-4 times that many properties that our ministry leadership looked at, but I never saw. It was a constant cycle of excitement and let down.
The lack of a physical property didn't inhibit the ministry of Jesus Christ at Wilderness Ridge from continuing, though. It was an honor, yet again (the first time was after the 2011 Bastrop Complex Fire, as a weekly volunteer) to enable the focus of raising up biblical men to continue on many different locations. First, I arranged for our scheduled retreats for the remainder of the fall & spring to be hosted at locations like Cooper Farms & Camp Tejas. Then, we worked through the myriad of complications to adapt our Woodsman Summer Camp programs to operating at a public nature park, LCRA McKinney Roughs. In the middle of all that, I proposed to our board and got approval to develop an off-site backpacking/travel camp program for teens, Wilderness Ridge Adventures.
I've had to say goodbye to Jeremy Thomasson and Cody Benge, with whom I have formed a brotherhood with from serving in the trenches of ministry for the last few years. Honestly, this component has been one of the hardest for me. I've missed these excellent men almost every day for the last few months that we've gone our separate ways, and sometimes it makes me reluctant to get real with others. That's something that I know I need to work on, and I'm determined to continue to reach out for a strong community of men again.
Rebellion & Submission
During the summer, it became clear that the best way forward for Camp Wilderness Ridge was to become a ministry of Forest Glen Camps, and everything associated with the camp has moved to the Forest Glen Springs location. After a VERY hard year of wanting to run away and do something that I more naturally enjoy, like live in a cabin in the mountains, last week I relented. Seriously. As we drove away from the first meeting our staff had after the fire, I told Claire, "I don't want to do this anymore. I didn't sign up for this." I stay committed to complete the tasks before me with excellence, but I checked three different jobs lists daily, sent my resume to 20+ places, and even engaged in a 9-month long interview process with an org that we both really liked, just to have that door slammed in our face (metaphorically, not physically--it just felt very abrupt and caused me to question the way I seek God's will in specific circumstances). So, after spending a couple of weeks at the cabin talking and praying and an experience where I asked some men I trust to pray for me while I was literally on a mountaintop talking to God, I realized I had been selfishly unwilling to consider the option I kind of knew from the beginning was what we were supposed to do. We spent a few days talking with Forest Glen and praying, and last week I accepted a position as Program Manager of Forest Glen Springs. I'll continue running the CWR Summer Camps and SALT Program, as well as manage the program staff of The Springs. This is is totally a story with themes similar to that of Jonah, which is why I'm honored that God is still willing to entrust His ministry to me.
Now, I sit at my new desk, watching the college ministry of Temple Bible Church check in just outside my window for a weekend of fellowship and growth. Yesterday I had a meeting with a ministry partner that I've forged a friendship with over the last 3 years to discuss how we bring the positive impact of Spring Break Day Camps to the elementary school students of Falls County. God is doing really cool things already, and I'm really glad to be here.
The Hardest Thing Of All
And finally, the most painful experience of the last year... In February, Claire & I learned that we were expecting our 2nd child. We were overjoyed when we first heard the baby's heartbeat at 8 weeks. Then, returning to the doctor a few weeks later, excited to learn the gender of our new little one, everything changed so fast as our joy turned to sorrow when we learned our little one had passed away possibly a few weeks prior.
A couple of weeks ago, we passed what was to be Finley's due date, September 24, 2016.
Last weekend (in the middle of moving) we attended a "perinatal grief, loss, & support" seminar through The Austin Stone's counseling center. It was emotional, hard to talk about, but really good for both of us. Through this whole experience, God has given us a heart for those who have lost babies, either in-utero or shortly after birth. It's pretty insane how common this is: Almost 1 in 4 pregnancies end early. We were blown away by how many people approached us and said, "We totally understand how you feel; We had a miscarriage last year." Sometimes it would be people that we were really close to, and I would respond, "What? How are we that close and you never told me you lost a child?" It's become clear that it's just something that people don't know how to talk about, and so therefore are going around with this pain in their heart that they haven't dealt with or gotten any support. Claire and I both would like to see that change, and now that we know, we'd like to help however we can.
II Cor. 1:3-4 - The Theme of This Year
In all these things, the Holy Spirit brings to my mind II Corinthians 1:3-4, which says:
I think this has sort of been the theme of the year. You go through hard stuff. God offers comfort if you turn to Him. Afterward, you notice people hurting more easily, and you can relate to them better (empathy) as you offer the same comfort with which you yourself have been comforted by God. As someone who doesn't typically score very high on the mercy quotient of spiritual gift inventories, this is a really good lesson for me.
Thank You, Sincerely.
Over this past weekend, when we were packing our apartment--the apartment that our fire insurance amazingly provided for the last year--into a moving van, and I noted that it was unreal how much stuff we had acquired in the last year.
Here's a photo from a year ago of everything that we had left after the fire.
This is everything we have left from our home, just what we packed when we evacuated. #HiddenPinesFire -- But our treasure is in heaven, not with stuff, and #Godisgood and has supplied all our needs to the point where we're able to bless others as good stewards of His resources. No reason not to trust Him. Here @claireymcturner is itemizing what made it out so we can compare what we packed with what we should have packed and make the ultimate fire evac checklist. Honestly, this experience may turn me into one of those "preppers." ;-)
And here's a photo from a couple of days ago with the moving truck with everything packed.
It's not lost on me that almost everything inside of that truck--now inside of our tiny home beside the Forest Glen Springs dining hall--was supplied by God through many, many people who were moved to be generous. Literally days after the fire, donations of baby clothing, diapers, toiletries, even random pieces of furniture started showing up. About a week later, our parents set up a GoFundMe page, and so many people pitched in. It was a HUGE blessing. The small group that we had joined only three weeks earlier was a massive base of support and care. Every time we were in need, something unexpected would work out.
In reflecting on this, these verses from Philippians 4 have stuck out to me in the last couple of weeks. Here Paul is expressing his thankfulness to the church in Philippi for partnering with him in Jesus' ministry:
Paul's confidence in the goodness of Christ has been quite moving to me in the last year, and I want to emulate that character.
First, I thank the Lord Jesus Christ for hard challenges that forced us to base our marriage, parenting, and selves on Him and Him alone.
Secondly, I give Him all the glory for the provision over the last year, but I also truly & deeply want to express my gratitude to you.
Whether you knew it or not, you were the means by which God provided for the needs of my family. It has meant the world.
Yours in Christ,