Kiana Brusett joined a group of Walla Walla University students, faculty, and staff who spent spring break in Paradise, California, assisting the community with a variety of projects. Kiana has written about several experiences from the trip, including this article about Mae and Vincent.
An odd-looking sky
Rain fell on the motorhome roof like applause. It must have been applause for the courage it had seen in the last couple of months. Eight of us squeezed into the cramped trailer. Mae sat at the kitchen table, paperwork piled to an overwhelming height. Her husband, Vincent, leaned against the doorpost leading to the small bedroom. Exhaustion and exasperation lined their faces.
They told us it was an odd morning when the fire happened. Vincent had stayed up late into the night watching movies. “The sky looks odd,” he said to Mae in the dim bedroom. Mae dismissed his comment. After being married for nearly 50 years, odd comments were easy to dismiss, but on that day he insisted. “No. We need to call the police. Call 911.” Mae conceded and dialed. The operator picked up. Mae reported the “odd-looking sky.” The operator replied, “Ma’am, there’s a fire. You need to evacuate.” That was the only alert given. They fled from the fire, which chased them from the ridge, claimed their home and almost their lives.
“We almost died three times,” Mae told us. The first time was the near affixation, the second was when they left their home, and the third was driving through the flames when there was no other option.
Sharing hope as an option
I didn’t think I would ever fully understand this, no matter how much the people of Paradise explained it to me. The destruction in Paradise left me dumbfounded. The town had turned into a war zone. Burnt cars, burnt buildings, and burnt trees were the predominant landscape. Seeing a yellow “X” on each of the vehicles and buildings that had been searched after the fire was surreal. These images flashed through my mind as Mae told her story.
Her frustration boiled just below the surface. Dealing with insurance had been an uphill climb. At the time we talked, nothing that had been agreed upon was legally binding because the exchange took place over the phone and not on paper. I remembered that our purpose in visiting Paradise was to help carry that burden.
“Now, insurance wants us to prove we were in the fire!” Mae declared with emphasis on “prove.” Her hopelessness was tangible in the room. Then I remembered, this was what we were there for. Instead of focusing on the hopelessness, we were there to present hope as an option.
So, we turned toward the real issue at hand: the leaking roof. Vincent and Mae had bought the trailer with promises that they would be repaid, but shortly after the purchase, that monetary support was rescinded and the trailer began to show its age. The roof leaked and the sewer system needed work. The trailer was parked on a patch of dirt next to their daughter’s house—a single mother, renting her place.
In a time of disaster, I thought people would be more understanding. Instead, some took advantage and turned the tragedy into a market. It reminded me of when Jesus walked into the temple, saw his children being exploited, and flipped the tables. I think it was the same righteous anger that ran through me then.
The landlord was one who chose not to understand. He required both Mae and Vincent and their daughter to pay rent separately for the one property. With dwindling funds, heavy burdens, and no headway with insurance, paying rent wasn’t something they needed added to their plate. Their daughter was also running on empty.
While at church in Chico, I met a man who said that people are now living in a “fluctuating state.” It was ironic that the state in which one is existing is fluctuating. A state is supposed to be stable, unchanging. Routines, patterns, and plans are the framework for the American existence. That stability was ripped away from thousands of people in an instant. People were forced to confront a reality of fluctuation.
We told Mae we would try our best to fix the roof. Her face filled with mixed emotions. Joy, sorrow, and relief swirled in her response. She was delighted that we were even willing to help. Four months after the fire, the rest of the world had seemed to forget Paradise. Other disasters and stresses filled our minds while the people of Paradise continued to live a waking nightmare.
David Lopez, executive director for the Walla Walla University Center for Humanitarian Engagement, discussed with Vincent what tools they had and specifics about fixing the roof. “When can you come out?” Mae asked. She suggested Saturday. We filled her in on our habit of attending church on Saturday. “Adventists!” she exclaimed. Her sister is an Adventist, so we briefly connected with those roots. Mae and Vincent have been Christians of the Latter-Day Saints for almost 50 years. She was overwhelmed and overjoyed that people from two different religions could come together and help each other. To receive support from Adventists, even when belief systems differ, was a miracle, they said. I smiled, because this is what Christianity is supposed to be: love-filled action.
The whole town looked like a war zone or a post-apocalyptic movie. The cleanup alone was going to take ages. But beauty was rising from the ashes. A Disney artist came back after the fire to leave beauty and hope where he could. Portrait murals were scattered throughout the charred remains. Intense eyes and beautiful faces stared from crumbling walls. Beauty was rising from the ashes.
As I drove into Paradise, I noticed a sign that quoted Walt Disney: “It’s kind of fun to do the impossible.” Underneath it said, “Thank you first responders.” In Paradise, everything seemed impossible. Therefore, they were going to do the impossible. There was no other option.
Mae and Vincent smiled as we filed out of the trailer. “God bless!” Mae called to us. They waved sweetly until we were all gone. It was drizzling outside. We walked through the rain, each of us lost in our own thoughts. The trailer was off-white with a pink and blue stripe running down the middle. It seemed to bulge at the seams, and the siding was warped in places. A tarp was placed over the roof in an attempt to stop the leaks. “Dingy” was the word that came to mind looking at it. Yet, juxtaposed with this sad-looking trailer, were some beautiful people.
Mae and Vincent were full of frustration and exhaustion, but they were also full of beauty and courage. We climbed into the car quietly. The sound of rain on car windows and the whir of tires on a wet road filled my ears. I thought over the story Mae and Vincent told us. I couldn’t help but feel a somber heaviness. All they knew had been destroyed. It was crazy that they could find hope from that. Somehow, they did. I think the somehow was found in the fighting, in the growing, in the rising.
Not only is hope alive, but Paradise is, too. Paradise is rising.
Posted May 14, 2019