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Responses to the Paradise Fire: The Wisdom of Not-Knowing
Alum Katy Valentine (PhD, '14) reflects on recovery efforts after the fire in Paradise, CA
"From my time at the GTU, I learned that confessing not knowing answers is a gateway to greater learning. It also helps us ask smarter questions. The impact of studying with people very similar and also very different than me led me to know that God can deliver many good answers at once, and they do not have to be identical. . . . Respectful cooperation is more powerful than fighting."
--Katy Valentine (PhD, '14)
On November 8, 2018, I woke up to news about a fire in the nearby town of Paradise. Like the rest of Californians, I’m attuned to being cautious but I was not overly worried – small fires are common in the north part of the state. The fire began about 6:30 a.m., right as I was waking up. By mid-morning, it was clear the fire was spreading quickly. Residents were fleeing from Paradise and Magalia, a short twelve-mile drive from Chico, where I live.
My small city sprang into action, much like it did during the Oroville Dam crisis two years ago. This crisis, though, was much worse. The fire spread rapidly and engulfed all of Paradise and Magalia. Like the rest of Chico, I watched anxiously on social media for updates of friends whom I’ve made over the past seven years. They began checking in; physically safe but having lost all that they own. To date, 84 people have lost their lives in the fire. As my household left Chico on the second day of the fire, my comment was that the red light streaming through the smoky filled sky was eerily apocalyptic.
When I returned to Chico, I felt charged to be a presence in the crisis both as a pastor and a scholar. The pastoral needs were obvious – hurting, hungry people, lost in the miasma of crisis. The call came for local clergy to be present with our county’s Behavior Health Unit in the quickly erected FEMA center to offer people on the spot counseling and presence. I donned my clergy collar and went to sit with people. The entire headquarters for the town of Paradise were located at a table in the booth next to me. People stopped by to find out how to get new deeds for their burned homes and wandered to find potential resources. Many people knew they needed to talk about their experience, but they were not ready yet – first they had to take care of the basics and get settled into a new normal. Everyone feels the presence of the 84 dead and still hundreds of missing people.
The devastation seems total. Yet, as always, glimmers of hopefulness shine through. I saw people from Paradise recognize each other and hug in the FEMA center. Children excitedly saw friends and began to play. Local people have generously donated time, resources, extra bedrooms and money to provide relief. My former parish, First Christian Church, hosted a vigil for Paradise residents, making a space for them to connect to the holy in the middle of their grief, making national news for this gift of presence.
The number one question people ask is “Why did God allow this to happen?” I flash back to my Hebrew translation classes on Job. He asked the same question. As a scholar, I can talk for hours about the question of “Why?” but what people really need right now is someone who does not know all the answers.
From my time at the GTU, I learned that confessing not knowing answers is a gateway to greater learning. It also helps us ask smarter questions. The impact of studying with people very similar and also very different than me led me to know that God can deliver many good answers at once, and they do not have to be identical. Having courses as a moderate to progressive Christian next to Orthodox Jews and evangelical Christians showed me that that respectful cooperation is more powerful than fighting. When I began my doctoral journey in 2003, I could not have foreseen that I would walk into a crisis FEMA center and quickly interact with atheist counselors, Buddhist relief workers, evangelical Christian chaplains, United Methodist psychologists, nondenominational Christian workers, and many displaced local clergy as fellow colleagues in relief efforts. We are all asking the same question of “Why?” with no real answers yet. I am not worried, because I know that when we sit in a classroom together, even in the shape of a FEMA center, new questions and healing will emerge.
Was I prepared for this? Nothing can prepare for the widespread devastation and grief that is ongoing in the community. I was prepared, however, to work quickly and effectively with others who are not like me, and we all offer something different to people in dire need. In time, I will start to facilitate conversations about Job, bringing the wisdom of rabbis and Christian mystics as conversation partners to our current crisis. That is for later on down the road. For now, I am relying on the collective wisdom of many voices of faith to share this journey together. The GTU likewise embodies this collective wisdom and started me on the journey.
I am delighted that the GTU has chosen to make a donation to the Shalom Free Clinic to support ongoing Camp Fire relief. This local Chico organization serves the uninsured and underinsured with free health care, including mental health care and alternative care, each Sunday. When I was in between insurance providers several years ago, I found myself with a respiratory infection verging on bronchitis (not usual for me every spring!). After going an awful urgent care office, I stepped into line at the Shalom Free Clinic. I received excellent care and a compassionate doctor. The mental health team at the clinic likewise serves people who could not otherwise afford counseling or chaplaincy care. Weekly yoga classes are available for people as well as occasional Reiki and energy work. It is an excellent provider in Chico, and they are stepping up to be present during this crisis. The GTU's donations are in good hands.
Rev. Dr. Katy E. Valentine (PhD, ’14) is the Director of Online Learning for Disciples Seminary Foundation and the founder of Creative Christian Spirituality, LLC. She is a New Testament scholar working on the development of a transgender hermeneutic for Scripture. She has resided in Chico since 2012.