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FL residents find faith amidst fires


ORMOND BEACH, FL (June 27, 1998) -- With wildfires less than a mile away, the Rev. Ken Zimmerman, his wife

Loreen, and their four teenagers evacuated their home in Ormond Beach, Fla.

After loading their van, they stood in the driveway, the air adrift with

burning palm fronds, for what could have been a last look.

"At that moment, I couldn't help but think: 'what is essential?'" wrote

Zimmerman in a message to the Tomoka United Methodist Church entitled

"Where There's Smoke, There's Faith."

"This month's newsletter message was originally going to be about fireworks

and freedom," he wrote. "But the fires have affected each of us. Some are

confined to our homes. Some have had to leave their homes. I think about

what Paul wrote to Timothy: 'For we brought nothing into the world and will

bring nothing out of it.'"

The Zimmermans were able to return home but they still keep boxes of family

photos and precious possessions by the door as Florida struggles to control

the fires. And they are still asking themselves: what is essential?

Julie Dennis, one of Zimmermans' parishioners, pondered the same question

when she and her family temporarily evacuated their home in fire-ravaged

Volusia County. "You realize what's essential is your family, your pets,

photos, important papers," she said. "The other things mean absolutely

nothing. We left our home not knowing exactly where to go. We stayed with a

fellow church member. She was an angel."

Countless other Florida residents are also realizing what's essential is

each other. Volunteers already working overtime aiding people hit by

tornadoes earlier this year, are clocking even more hours through local

churches, the American Red Cross, Salvation Army, Lutheran Disaster

Response, Harvest Time, Elder Affairs, Christian Sharing Center, Halifax

Baptist Association, and Seminole Heart, a consortium of county and state

agencies, churches, and charity organizations.

Stetson University in DeLand and Embry-Riddle University in Daytona are

providing dormitory housing for firefighters flocking in from across the

nation to help. More than 2,000 firefighters rely on local churches and

Salvation Army kitchens for meals every day, funded by special collections

taken in now-familiar red plastic firehats passed during church services

and community meetings.

In a letter sent to more than 200 Seminole County churches, Seminole Heart

asked people for $100 contributions to repair lost or damaged homes,

outbuildings, fences and well casings. "Three-fourths of homes that have

been destroyed in Seminole County were uninsured. Many of them were

trailers," said Major Bruce Williams, Salvation Army commanding officer and

vice chair of Seminole Heart. "These people have absolutely no recourse.

They need immediate help."

Harvest Time, an international resource ministry organization, is also

concentrating on local needs by donating pallets of spring water for

residents and firefighters. "I tell all the people fighting fires to know

that they can look back and say 'well done,'" said John Murphy, Harvest

Time executive director. "We need to focus on that fact that the fires will

be over. The grass can only burn one time. We still have our lives."

Pastor Phil Roughton, of First United Methodist Church in Ormond Beach,

said people depressed by constant worry, smoke, and ash, have been

gathering to pray in his sanctuary and others. "We live in a privileged

place here in Florida. People are beginning to realize how devastating this

can be. They start thinking about the millennium and the end of the world.

This is an opportunity for teaching, ministry, and encouragement," he said.

The intangible gifts people offer each other -- like the courage to keep

going -- are just as important as financial contributions, food, clothing,

and other donations, said Linda Gunter, office administrator at the First

Presbyterian Church in Sanford. "When things get tough, you have a church

family, and you have a community family," she said. "We were still

distributing funds and donations to people wiped out by recent tornadoes

when the fires started. So our struggle just seems to go on. At times I ask

myself how much more Sanford can take."

Pastor Beth Fogle-Miller, of First United Methodist Church in Sanford, said

that the state has a shortage of qualified volunteer caseworkers. "It's not

a matter of rebuilding homes. It's rebuilding lives," she said. "It's not

just a matter of putting up two-by-fours. A former social worker from our

congregation has her hands full volunteering to help all the folks who seem

to be falling through the cracks."

Volunteer caseworkers from the Christian Sharing Center in Sanford, many

retired nurses or teachers, are interviewing families and assessing their

needs. Nancy Nolt, director of public relations for the center, said

caseworkers are supporting families involved in the fire crisis as well as

those suffering in the aftermath of the recent surge of tornadoes. The

Sharing Center also offers a food pantry, clothing, and financial

assistance for essentials such as rent, utility payments, prescriptions,

gasoline, and car repairs.

"As a community, we hadn't thought about disaster before this," said Nancy.

"We weren't expecting it. We are still trying to consolidate the good work

of the churches and help people through this process."

Posted June 27, 1998

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