Wildfires, Bus-driver Lee & Finding Hope

There’s nothing left to sift.” This was the thought going through my mind as I stood at a distance watching a man sifting through the ashes for items where his home once stood. The dystopian-like devastation before me was surreal. The inferno of flames reached temperatures that bent steel and reduced absolutely everything to a substance-less than ash. What remained of the 2000 plus homes I saw was either a lonely still standing chimney of a house or the mangled and agonizingly misshapen cold-steel frame of a mobile home. In either case, all else was ash save the random ceramic pot that somehow survived what metal could not.

While the West Coast has seen millions of acres ablaze recently, the towns of Medford, Phoenix, and Talent Oregon were perhaps hit the hardest. In a four-hour tour, I witnessed well over two-thousand homes that had been completely annihilated by the wildfires, and that was just a peek at the devastation that had made an unwelcome visit. The loss, trauma, and needs experienced by these communities will take years to work through.

Two Christian and Missionary Alliance churches that have been in the thick of things are Medford Neighborhood Church and The Living Room in Central Point. Pastor Lee Gregory of MNC is also well known as “Bus-Driver Lee” The twin roles of local church pastor and bus driver have given Pastor Lee the opportunity to serve the parents and kids of his community well. The respect Lee has gained has also allowed him to rally his community of faith to be the hands and feet of Jesus when crisis struck in the form of wildfire blazes consuming homes and businesses alike.

I arrived early at the Jackson County Expo the morning I met with Lee. The Expo had become the staging area for fire crews, human services, and logistics. Lee wasn’t there yet; however, I saw his ICARE sign at a booth set up by one of his parishioners named Michael. Michael filled me in on the stories of people they had been helping. You could see the compassion in his eyes as he talked about the difference and impact they were having. Soon the booth was visited by Red Cross representatives and other humanitarian aid reps looking For Lee. Then I saw the bus roll through the parking lot. Lee had arrived, and people rallied around him.

I learned that Lee had lived in Paradise, California, another city hit hard by wildfires in 2018, which is currently feeling another threat (read more here). During the fires of 2018, Lee and the leaders at Medford Neighborhood Church developed a ministry called ICARE to help people who had been affected by the devastation. When the wildfires hit anew in the Medford area, they relaunched ICARE for another round of ministry, this time in their neighborhoods. 

Over the previous few weeks, Lee and his bus had been shuttling people back and forth behind the fire line. As the bus approached the many restricted fire-hit areas, all it took was a handwave from Lee, and he was allowed where others could not go. As I boarded the bus with my wife Amy, Rachel from the Alliance NW District Office, and Max and Olivia from Alliance Video, Lee introduced me to some other passengers on our journey. Seeing how God uses Lee’s job as a School-bus driver beautifully interweaving with his call to ministry is still putting a smile on my face.

Driving a bus has networked Lee with thousands of families and leaders in the community. He has earned their trust and respect, allowing God to place him right where he needs to be at this time to be the hands and feet of Jesus, bringing hope and compassion to so many hurting people.

Lee’s son, Dan Gregory, who pastors The Living Room, a church plant in Center Point, was also on the bus. The Living Room has been active in serving the community as well. The church lobby is packed with items to help displaced families. Everything from clothing to toothpaste is arranged and organized efficiently for those who need it. It was a blessing to see two pastors, a father, and a son, respond with great compassion and a real tangible touch in their community.

The Living Room shares space with a Hispanic Church (The Potter’s House). Santiago is the pastor the Potter’s House and his home was not spared as the fires ravaged house after house. While Santiago was not able to join us, his wife Leonor along with some others from their church were on board and about to see what remained of their homes for the first time. Two other men (Fred and Scotty), members of Medford Neighborhood Church, would also be going to see what was left of their homes.

Lee and Dan shepherded well. There were moments of Holy stillness held in tension with grief and loss. Our companions slowly and sadly absorbed with their eyes what remained of their homes. Places where laughter and dreaming once filled the air were silent now, leaving you numb and brokenhearted. I talked with Scotty as we stood looking at the charred remains of his home. Scotty, also a bus driver, is a musician and plays on the Worship team at Medford Neighborhood Church. He was able to get some, but not all, of his guitars out of the house.

I wondered to myself, “If I only had 5 minutes warning to evacuate, what would I grab? What would be the most important thing I would take? How would my heart-break knowing what was left behind?” These are merely some of the questions that thousands of people are asking right now.

It is in the devastating moments like these that the church needs to rise up…
It is in the days of dark valleys that the church needs to bring the Light of Christ…
It is in the midst of despair that the church needs to bring a spark of hope…

These were the actions and responses I saw happening through my friends. ICARE, the ministry at Medford Neighborhood Church, Stands for “Compassion and Respect for Everyone.” Those words flowed out of Lee’s heart like a rushing river. “Why do we help like this?” Lee asks, “Because we need to have compassion and respect for everyone.” For Lee and Dan, this is not just a slogan; it’s a daily rhythm for a follower of Jesus.

We live in a time and culture that is alight with political, social, racial, and gender wildfires, to name a few. These cultural eruptions have created a deep divide in our country. There seems to be no middle ground, no room for different opinions, no capacity to consider the other person. We are ideologically entrenched, making enemies of each other. Compassion seemingly recedes into the underbrush.

I appreciate Lee’s heart around compassion and respect for everyone. He is right when he believes that expressing love in this way will put out the wildfires of upheaval all across our country. This posture is the heartbeat of Jesus’ teaching. Love and compassion indeed find welcome hearts when communities experience natural disasters. However, when we show compassion and respect for everyone, including those who are not like us, or those opposed to us, we follow the way of Jesus and become agents of healing in the world.

The road back will be long and hard for those who lost everything around Medford, Phoenix, Talent and Central Point, and other Oregon towns. Many will not be able to rebuild and will move elsewhere to start over. Many will need help for years to come. But as the rubble is slowly removed, I know of a couple of Alliance Churches that will offer compassion and respect to everyone they meet, which is the beginning of a renewed hope for many.

If you would like to donate or help go to: https://www.medfordneighborhoodchurch.org/