Religious Group Offers Gentle Comfort to Wildfire Victims

Faith is there for those who've lost everything in the blazes of Southern California.

At Del Mar Fairgrounds near the Pacific Coast, where some 200 evacuees are being sheltered, a group of religious volunteers is lending an ear to the victims.

"Use your heart, your soul, your ears and the very last thing, your mouth. Listen," said the Rev. Dr. Vandal Holman, a chaplain with the American Red Cross. "Then you'll know what to say."

At a nondescript booth near the entrance of the shelter, volunteers from Victim Relief Ministries are offering just that.

"We don't evangelize at all," said Ron Crimmins. "That's an absolute no-no."

Many religious groups, including the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, have been dispatched to California to aid the victims of the fires. But the only presence at the main shelter in San Diego County is Victim Relief Ministries, a group founded in 1999 that, according to members, provides support on a physical, emotional and spiritual level.

"Let them tell us their story, then if there's anything we can do to help them, and then we'll ask if they want us to pray for them," said Crimmins, a volunteer from Arizona. "And it's not a generic prayer. We'll listen to see how they're talking to us so we know what to pray for and that's it."

Often times that friendly ear is just what's needed for those living in the post-disaster shelters.

"It's not your house," said John H. Degnan, a spokesman for the Red Cross. "So you come to a shelter and you have some stranger sleeping next to you and somebody snoring and all of those kinds of things, but in terms meeting emergency need: food, clothing, shelter, a safe, warm place to be, this is the works."

About 20 Victim Relief Ministries volunteers are in California aiding the victims; they always align with a relief agency to make sure they're not getting in the way of post-disaster protocols.

"It's so important to come alongside people, not with an agenda," said volunteer Donna Pemberton. "You're coming to serve — that's what we believe. Through our faith in Christ we come along and we serve."

While booths from insurance agencies and the Mexican Consulate at Del Mar Fairgrounds are covered in pamphlets, the Victims Relief table is relatively barren — only some fruit bars and handmade Halloween cards made by children are up for grabs.

One volunteer, Rich Tanguay, wears a pin that says "Si Hablo Espanol."

He said that while at least one member of the family usually speaks English, it's an added comfort to have someone lending a Spanish-speaking ear for those victims of disaster.

And the group doesn't keep its mission tied to the shelter. Members have gone out to the neighborhoods destroyed by fire, offering cold water and their respectful distance.

"They'll let you know what their needs are," Pemberton said.

It's enough to get the hopeless, hopeful.

"It's what happens when all the people go home and all the shelters shut down and all the balloons and the circus and the T-shirts are not given out," Pemberton said. "Who's going to minister and help them when all the people are gone?"

"We're here," Crimmins added. "We're available."