Photo taken by Janet Sirob, Paradise Rise team member.
Photo taken by Janet Sirob, Paradise Rise team member.

Beauty from the Ashes: APU Sends Relief Team to Paradise, CA

by Abigail Reed

Cheers echo across the charred landscape as volunteers uncover a missing heirloom, near strangers gather together in prayer next to the remains of a family’s home, a resident tearfully shares her story of escape—Azusa Pacific University came alongside and served the community of Paradise after its devastating wildfire through a relief team called Paradise Rise.

Months prior, the Camp Fire—the most destructive wildfire in California history—spread through Butte County. On November 8, 2018, the fire reached Paradise, a small town nestled against the foothills, ravaging the homes and businesses of more than 27,000 inhabitants.

As Paul Bernard, ABD, assistant professor with the Department of Psychology and lead pastor at TEN27 Church, watched news reports of the raging wildfire, he recognized God’s call to serve the people of Paradise. Bernard partnered with APU’s Center for Student Action, and on February 14, 2018, a team of church members and 34 APU student volunteers climbed into vans and journeyed north.

For Paradise Rise team member Everette Risley ’21, this was a journey home. In November, Risley learned the fire had destroyed his childhood home and nearly all of his family’s belongings while he was studying abroad in South Africa. Deeply shaken but sustained by his faith, Risley continued to trust God’s plan in the midst of tragedy. When he returned to APU’s Azusa Campus, he knew he needed to help so he signed up for Paradise Rise.

“Seeing students and staff I barely knew sacrifice so much for my community—driving over nine hours, paying travel costs, and some getting only a few hours of sleep—meant so much to me,” he said. “This trip gave me a profound sense of unity and hope.”

The team joined the ongoing relief efforts of Paradise Alliance Church and Samaritan’s Purse. Starting early in the morning, each group of volunteers traveled to three or more destroyed homes, providing encouragement to families and sifting through the rubble to recover lost items in the soot and debris. From unearthing a perfectly intact china set to a grandmother’s wedding ring, finding missing items provided encouragement and hope to the victims of the fire. Altogether, the seven groups of APU students visited more than 50 lost homes.

In addition to item recovery, the volunteers engaged with the Paradise residents in an incredibly important act of service: listening.

Standing near the remains of their homes, the residents shared their stories from the day of the fire. Although tears often accompanied the accounts, each and every resident desired to share and be heard by the group of people that traveled miles to listen and help.

“Hearing these stories was the most impactful part of the trip,” said Austin Welty, program coordinator for local engagement and Paradise Rise leader. “Our ultimate goal was to love and show that we care.”

From rushing to gather belongings in a matter of minutes to residents fleeing on foot due to road blockages, the stories portrayed the devastation and panic as the fire spread through Paradise. Within the tragedy, however, were accounts of incredible courage, such as the story of a local Vietnam veteran and his wife.

The morning of the fire—the sky as dark as night—an elderly veteran pounded on door after door in his mobile home park, assisting neighbors into their wheelchairs and helping them escape. In the midst of the catastrophe, his heroism remained. He saved many lives that day.

“The only way to really understand what happened is to listen to those who experienced it firsthand,” said Jenna Seright ’21. “Once you hear their stories, you will always remember the devastating effect of the Paradise fire and the bravery of the local people.”

At the end of every home visit, the Paradise residents received prayer from the team and a new Bible with handwritten, personal notes from each member. “After the trip, I reflected on Isaiah 61:3 and God promising the Israelites to bring beauty from ashes and a wave of understanding hit me.” said Bernard. “The love and sacrifice of the students and the stories of Paradise residents—they became the beauty in the midst of the town’s ashes.”

To hear more testimonies and stories, go to the Paradise Rise YouTube channel or Facebook Page. For more information about Paradise Rise or ways to get involved, visit their Paradise Rise's website.

Abigail Reed is a public relations intern in the Office of University Relations. She is a liberal studies major with an honors humanities minor.