Build up the body of Christ. Support the Pentecost Offering.

Presbyterian response to Maui wildfires continues


‘It can make a very powerful difference to know people have got your back’

by Darla Carter | Presbyterian News Service

Search and rescue soldiers and airmen assist Maui County and state officials in search and recovery efforts in Lahaina, Maui, Hawaii, earlier this month. The guard mobilized after a wildfire struck Maui. (Photo by National Guard Master Sergeant Andrew Jackson)

LOUISVILLE — A community in Upcountry Maui that endured a wildfire at the same time as Lahaina is receiving a helping hand from concerned Presbyterians who are answering the call to donate to Presbyterian Disaster Assistance (PDA).

Two disaster assistance grants have been approved and the Presbytery of the Pacific, which works in conjunction with PDA, is staying in close contact with the Po’okela Church, a United Church of Christ congregation in the north-central portion of the island. The church is led by the Rev. Dr. Kimberly Fong, a Presbyterian pastor who “has really been emerging as an extraordinary leader in this moment,” said the Rev. Heidi Worthen Gamble, the mission catalyst for the Presbytery of the Pacific.

Fong’s “church has a Wednesday night open tent service, and they’ve kind of just extended that to be a community site where people can get services and help,” Worthen Gamble said. “They’re very connected,” especially with people living in nearby Kula.

Worthen Gamble has been a liaison between Fong and the PC(USA) in the aftermath of the massive wildfire outbreak that began Aug. 8 on the island and grew into an inferno that robbed scores of people of their lives and property and left many families with unanswered questions about missing loved ones and/or how to recover from the loss of their home, family, pets and livelihood. There also are environmental issues, such as water quality.

“In Rev. Fong’s words, it’s just enormous,” Worthen Gamble said of the disaster. “It can be very hard to navigate emotionally, but it can make a very powerful difference to know people have got your back.”

At least 115 people have died in Hawaii and many people remain unaccounted for with thousands of acres burned.  Even as recently as Sunday, fires were continuing to burn in Lahaina, Kula and Olinda, but were not considered to be active threats, according to authorities. Those fires include the Lahaina fire (90%contained), the Kula fire (90% contained) and the Olinda fire (85% contained).

The Upcountry, where many residents live, hasn’t been as prominent in news reports as Lahaina, which is closer to the coast, but Presbytery of the Pacific, PDA and a coalition of faith-based and other nonprofit organizations have been working to uplift and address the needs of people in areas like Makawao and Kula. The coalition is Hawaii State Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster (VOAD).

“Through the coordinating work of the Hawaii State VOAD, much-needed support is being offered and plans are being prepared for what will be a very long-term recovery,” said the Rev. Jim Kirk, PDA’s Associate for National Disaster Response. With the help of local faith leaders on Oahu, where the PC(USA) has six churches, “Presbyterians are represented on the Hawaii VOAD.”

In addition to that, part of the Presbyterian response includes helping affected persons to navigate through difficulties that come with disasters, such as being able to get and make sense of information.

“Part of what we’re trying to do and working with the presbytery is to make sure that Dr. Fong and others are aware of what resources are available that they qualify for” from various agencies and organizations, so “that’s been one of the helpful connections with Hawaii VOAD,” Kirk said. “It’s a very dynamic situation.”

Also, PDA grants are being used to meet multiple needs, including “everything from water filtration systems to help with hotels to help with mortgages” because some people have lost employment, Worthen Gamble said.

PDA funds also are or may in the future be used to pay for essentials, such as water, food and hygiene items, backpacks, damage repairs and car payments. The idea is to help Po’okela Church “continue the work that they’re already doing, helping to meet those immediate needs,” Kirk said.

The Rev. Heidi Worthen Gamble is mission catalyst for the Presbytery of the Pacific.

Because the recovery will be a lengthy one and grant funds can be expended quickly, PDA and Worthen Gamble are encouraging everyone to continue donating to PDA’s response.

“Cash donations allow for the resources to be used for exactly what’s needed,” Kirk said. Also, they allow “for local sourcing of goods and that helps the economy” on the island.

Worthen Gamble added: “We think that we have a very solid response that we’re building, a very essential one, very much in the spirit of Matthew 25,” standing in the gap with a very church- and community-based response.

She also noted that this is the kind of work that PC(USA) is experienced in. For example, PDA and the Presbytery of the Pacific worked together to build coalitions in the wake of fires that swept through Southern California in 2018 and 2019.

“With PDA funds, we were able to rehabilitate an entire community in Seminole Springs, California,” Worthen Gamble said. “So, we know how to do this work and we also have been very committed for many, many years on going to the Gulf Coast as a presbytery for disaster assistance in association with the National Black Presbyterian Caucus of Southern California. We’ve been developing a high IQ for how to understand the stages of disaster response and how to understand how to navigate and when and where the church can step in and how the church can step in, in ways that are truly and really helpful and impactful in the long term.”

In addition to sending donations, people should continue to be in prayer. That’s especially important in moments when “we realize this is a whole lot bigger than us,” Worthen Gamble said.

The Rev. Jim Kirk (Screenshot)

PDA took part in a recent call with leaders from the Presbytery of the Pacific and the Synod of Southern California and Hawaii. “The purpose of the call was to offer support and encouragement,” Kirk said.

PDA also has a spiritual team on stand-by to provide assistance should it be needed and has a National Response Team member who has been deployed by the Red Cross to help with emotional and spiritual care needs in Hawaii, Kirk said.

Future needs will include helping affected communities to rebuild in a culturally sensitive manner and to help people cope with pressures, such as entities with money-making interests trying to grab land. “This disaster like every other disaster just exacerbates the need for affordable housing,” Kirk said.

Much of PDA’s work often takes place after media attention has left an area. “There will be things for us to do. It’s just going to be when the media is gone, when the sensation of everything is over,” Worthen Gamble said.

Listen to an update from the Rev. Jim Kirk here.

Presbyterian Disaster Assistance is one of the Compassion, Peace & Justice ministries of the Presbyterian Mission Agency. To make a donation to Presbyterian Disaster Assistance for disaster relief for those affected by wildfires, go here.

Creative_Commons-BYNCNDYou may freely reuse and distribute this article in its entirety for non-commercial purposes in any medium. Please include author attribution, photography credits, and a link to the original article. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDeratives 4.0 International License.

  • Subscribe to the PC(USA) News

  • Interested in receiving either of the PC(USA) newsletters in your inbox?

  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.