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California fires force evacuations of homes, church offices

10/28/2003 News media contact: Tim Tanton · (615) 742-5470 · Nashville, Tenn.

Head-and-shoulders photographs of the Rev. John Yohan Yoon and Bishop Mary Ann Swenson are available.

A UMNS Report By Larry R. Hygh Jr.*

As fires continue to burn across Southern California, one pastor and his family are counting their blessings.

The Rev. John Yohan Yoon, pastor of Del Rosa United Methodist Church in San Bernardino, evacuated the church parsonage with his family on the afternoon of Oct. 25.

"We didn't get any warning," he said. Fire trucks and police cars did not come down the street telling people to evacuate; instead, the family saw the flames coming. Yoon, his wife and two young sons escaped with little more than the clothes they were wearing.

When Yoon arrived back in San Bernardino at 6 the next morning, he found the Del Rosa church still standing. The church is about a half-mile from the parsonage. "I was crossing my fingers that the parsonage was somehow salvaged," he said.

He returned to find the parsonage burned to the ground.

Fires, raging since the weekend, had killed at least 17 people in California and Mexico and destroyed more than 1,500 homes as of Oct. 28. The United Methodist Church's California-Pacific Annual (regional) Conference, led by Bishop Mary Ann Swenson, has requested help from the United Methodist Committee on Relief.

Several United Methodist families had to evacuate their homes, and one congregation evacuated during Sunday services Oct. 26. The San Diego and Santa Barbara district offices were closed, and Santa Barbara's records were moved to a church.

At the Del Rosa church, Yoon said about 35 members gathered that Sunday morning to share with each other.

"There are seven families in the congregation who have also lost their homes," Yoon said. "We came together to draw strength from each other. We're trying to make it the best we can with God's help."

Yoon did not deliver his prepared Sunday morning sermon, but instead spoke using the first chapter of 2 Thessalonians. "God comforts us in our trouble so that we may comfort those who are in trouble," he told parishioners. "Don't lose hope in the midst of tragedies like this.

"It's amazing how there's so many people trying to reach out in trouble," he said. "…There are people caring for each other, both strangers and friends. We are drawing strength from one another."

Yoon took his sons, ages 12 and 10, to the site where the parsonage once stood. "The little one thinks he'll be able to go back and find some of the toys he had left," he said. The toys were not there, but Yoon told his son that being together as a family is irreplaceable.

The family is staying temporarily with Yoon's parents, who recently moved to Southern California.

Bishop Swenson is calling on churches across the conference to take a special offering beyond their normal giving during the next two weeks. The conference stretches from Southern California across the Pacific Ocean to Hawaii, Guam and Saipan.

Geographically, six of the eight districts in the California-Pacific Conference have been affected by the fires that continue to burn in Southern California.

"There are no words for the sense of loss that comes from all this," Swenson said in a statement, "but there are words that give hope: Jesus says at the close of the Gospel of Matthew, 'I am with you always,' and I am convinced that is not an unspecific, generalized long-range plan, but a very intimate and specific promise to be present with us in each moment in our lives.

"That promise is sure and true, and I am holding on to it today," she said.

"It is also true that we are a part of that promise becoming real in the face of this disaster: our wonderful connection is already at work, bringing assistance to those in need-and not just our United Methodist family."

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*Hygh is director of communications for the California-Pacific Annual Conference.

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