Grieving in Grace

There is one thing at Discovery that everyone I have crossed paths knows about me: I am in love with my hometown. My hometown being a small surfing, ranching, and rodeo community (yes, we do have an annual event every summer called “Surf Rodeo”) by the name of Ventura, California.

I left Ventura in the summer of 2015 to attend college up here in Tacoma. I was ready to be out of Ventura after living there for almost twelve of my eighteen years. I thought I was going to leave forever when I got on a plane to SEATAC that August day.

But Ventura called me back sooner, rather than later. I fell more in love with my hometown the longer I stayed away. I didn’t realize how unique, special, and wonderful Ventura is until I left. I took every opportunity I could those first few years to go home and be in my beloved community.

One of my favorite places in my hometown (as it is for most residents of Ventura) is Grant Park. Grant Park sits on the second highest hill in Ventura and has a gorgeous view of the entire city of Ventura, beach and countryside both. The Cross sits in Grant Park, which represents The Cross placed in Ventura by Father Serra when he founded Mission San Buenaventura. The Cross is a holy place in Ventura. I have seen weddings, funerals, graduation photos, and family reunions all take place there. I have driven to The Cross when I feel the need to cry, have a moment to myself, or to take in the view as I eat my Corrales burrito.

The Cross tells us that we are home when we see it. It’s truly a sanctuary to so many people.

My hometown was always constant. I’ve only actually moved once in my life: when I moved from the house that I was born in to my home in Ventura that I grew up in. I barely remember the house that I was born in. The home at 771 Colina Vista was always my home, even if it technically wasn’t until I was about six years old. I spent fifteen years in that house. I was planning to spend more years there, but the universe had different plans.

My home was one of over one thousand homes that fell victim to the Thomas Fire in December of 2017. My parents (and our two cats) were two of over 100,000 people evacuated. And sadly, our beloved horse Maasai was one of the three losses of life during the Thomas Fire.

I was in Tacoma the day that I learned of all the loss of our home. In the middle of finals week. Expected to perform a solo in my junior year Christmas concert. Yikes.

Those days are an absolute blur, but completely crystal clear at the same time. I remember everything, but it’s all somewhat fuzzy. I can feel the weight of the overwhelming grief and sense of the world crumbling at my feet when I think about the moment my mom told me over the phone, “Dad and I tried to save the house Sweetie, but there was no water. We left as the roof began to burn. That is a nail in the coffin right there. There is no need to try and go see it just yet; we know our home is gone.”

I don’t like to think about that moment. My chest starts to get heavy again if I think about it for too long. It is safe for me to say, I would never in a million years wish this feeling on my worst enemy. It truly is one of the most vulnerable and truly naked feelings in the entire world.

As I was texting and calling friends the night that the fire initially started and when most of our parents were getting evacuated, the same question kept coming up in conversation: what about The Cross?

A wildfire is no joke. We are talking fire that is moving at over 70 miles per hour, that is burning one acre per second, and that is making everything in its path burnt to a crisp because of how dry everything is from the lack of a rainy season. The Thomas Fire reached one side of Ventura to the other in a matter of hours, but to residents it felt like seconds. We could not believe that this was happening to us. There was no way that we could all lose our homes, right?

Grant Park was in flames. I sobbed on the phone with my best friend as we watched photos and videos of Grant Park stream through Facebook and Instagram. The park was just too disconnected from the rest of the town. The fire department did not want to risk sending men and women up there to save it in case the winds changed direction and trapped them up there. The hearts of residents everywhere shattered. It became real in that moment: this was happening to us. We were going to lose it all: our homes, our landmarks, and our memories of our hometown.

We went to bed the night the fire began in shambles. My parents slept in a Motel 6 with our two cats. I slept on my couch because I was too afraid to sleep in my bed. Sleeping in my bed, and sleeping to then start a new day terrified me. I did not want to accept a new day. I did not want to accept that this wasn’t just some horrible nightmare. I slept, barely, and I was awoken to a million Facebook notifications of people marking themselves as safe, photos of lost pets, and lots of #VenturaStrong. I was scrolling through my feed when this photo popped up.

It was captioned “The Cross stands! This is definitely a sign from Him.” It was a relief to see a photo of a familiar part of home still standing. So much of it looked unfamiliar as I was watching the news coverage of the fire and getting photos left and right from friends and family in the area. I felt a piece of my soul return when I saw the Cross still standing there, tall and strong.

I am not proud to say it, but I pushed God away during this time. I can remember that I threw a glass against the wall and screamed words of hate, anger, and disbelief in Him and His goodness when my dad told me that they found Maasai and that he hadn’t survived that horrible night. My whole world shattered as glass flew around my bedroom. I was hurting so bad. The grief was weighing so heavily on my body. I felt like I couldn’t breathe because my sobs were so hard. I truly did not understand how I was expected to pick up the pieces of my life and continue.

Continue onto what? A destroyed home, a broken family, a burnt hometown?

Ventura was always supposed to be there for me. 771 was always supposed to be there for me. Why did He take it away now?

I have done the grieving that I needed to do during that time and there are moments, even nine months later, that I still need to grieve all the loss. I am in a much better place now than I was back then. I even got baptized this last April. And yes, you best believe I was the girl in the #VenturaStrong t-shirt. I am stronger than the girl before the Thomas Fire. I am in a stronger relationship with my parents, my community, and my God than I was before the Thomas Fire. I still may not understand the “why” of the event, but I understand the “why” of the aftermath: I’m a lot stronger and a lot more resilient than I was before the fire… something more here.

As we have been studying the book of Mark the last few weeks, specifically Mark 1:1-8, I have thought a lot about this idea of the wilderness that Jon has spoken about. Our wilderness is the place that we run from and the place that we are afraid of. It’s a state of our mind, our world, or our journey that we do not want to go back to because it terrifies us. My wilderness is the Thomas Fire. It is a period of my life that I don’t return to too often when walking down memory lane. But when I think about the aftermath of the Thomas Fire, the fact that I committed my life to Jesus and that I am the closest with my parents than I have ever been, I remember that that might not have happened had it not been for the Thomas Fire in the first place. I would not be where I am today without the wilderness. I would not have found Jesus, who led me out, had I not entered the wilderness in the first place.

Romans 5 versus 3 and 4 say “not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.” These verses ran through my head as I dug through the ash and rubble that remained of my childhood home. Just a page or two over in Romans 8 verse 18 says, “I consider our current sufferings cannot compare to the glory that will be revealed within us.” This verse ran through my head as I moved my parents into their new house before I got on a plane back to Tacoma to begin my junior year of college. Even in the wilderness, even in the moments when I thought that God wasn’t real or that the Thomas Fire came through my hometown as a punishment for something we did wrong, God was still there. No matter how hard I tried to push Him away, He stayed. He brought me through the wilderness even when I felt like He wasn’t there and He made me to be a stronger a more resilient believer than I ever was before.

Jon struck a chord when he spoke about the wilderness. He spoke about how we want to forget the wilderness when we get away from it. Amen to that. But he also spoke about how we can’t do this because we were in that wilderness for a reason and that reason has now made us who we were always meant to be.

I ran from Ventura after the Thomas Fires. I ran as hard and as fast I could away from that grief and that sorrow. But eventually, I ran a little too hard and a little too fast and needed to come home after avoiding it all for too long. I decided to return home for the summer to help my parents begin the rebuilding process and deal with the horrible insurance companies and city planners. I thought of Psalm 23 as I drove into Ventura one late night and saw the burnt hillsides and empty lots that once held loving homes.

The Lord is my Shepherd, I lack nothing. He makes me life down in green pastures, he leads me beside quiet waters, he refreshed my soul. He guides me along the right paths for his name’s sake. Even though I walk through the valley of death, I will for no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me. (Psalm 23: 1-4)

My heart sank as I saw my burnt and broken hometown, but I knew that even in this valley of death that the Lord was with me. I knew that He was guiding me through the fogginess of extreme grief and sorrow. I knew that He found me in the wilderness and that He brought me out and brought me home when I needed Him to. And I may want to run from it as fast as I possibly can whenever I feel it creeping over my shoulder, but I won’t. For I may never know why it had to be my home and my horse but I know that this wilderness has made me who I am today.

I know His plan is true and I know His grace is good. I know deep down in my soul that He never left me in the wilderness and He will never leave me as I venture into it to help others in their own grief processes. For I am now the one who knows and the one who can attest: there is no way to grieve a loss like this other than to grieve it in grace. For I know that suffering produces perseverance which produces character which in turn produces hope. And that our suffering cannot compare to the glory that will be revealed within us. I know that the wilderness is scary, but I also know that the wilderness is where He finds us at our most vulnerable and in turn, uses that to make us stronger and more resilient.

For the Lord is my Shepherd and he will guide me through the darkest and deepest of valleys of death. He will guide me through the wilderness of burnt and broken homes, but He will never leave me. He will walk with me as He brings me to Grant Park and to the Cross, a piece of home that still stands and reminds me that Ventura will always be home, no matter what happens to 771 Colina Vista.

I know now that He was there that night. He saved our sanctuary and a piece of Ventura that represents home for all. The Cross still stands there, proudly watching over and protecting our town as we all walk through our wilderness’ of grief and sorrow. But we all look at the Cross and know the truth of the matter: we will grieve for our town and for all the loss that we have suffered, but we will grieve it together and we will grieve it in grace.

There has never been a time in Ventura when we have been prouder to be homegrown in the hillbilly city by the sea and we know that through Christ and our home in the Cross, we are Ventura Strong and will walk through that together as one loving community.