Where Was Our Church When We Lost Our House?

When I was a child we lost our house while we were at church, and we ended up staying at a stranger's house.

On a Sunday afternoon in October 1991, my family climbed a high tower and watched thousands of homes burn down, including our own. In my memory it is night, and of course eventually it was, but we climbed the tower in the afternoon, so I know my memory misleads me. The sky had been dark with smoke for so long that we’d been stuck in an hours-long twilight, beginning with the noxious darkness that had struck when we were inside our church that morning. The sudden and profound change in light excited a few mumbled comments, but didn’t provoke anyone to go outside until after the service, when we saw that the sun had been utterly sombered out by an immense column of smoke.

We drove around for a bit after church, my dad half trying to get back up into the hills toward our home, half trying to find out what was going on. When the magnitude of the fire became apparent, my parents took us to dad’s office. From there we could see everything. My siblings, my mother, and I stared out at the Berkeley Hills in California, from a building just off of Telegraph Avenue, watching the glowing growing black, wondering what it meant, besides the unprocessable obvious.

My dad lay down on a couch and slept deeply while we sat, fixed on the fire.

The previous day had been a Saturday. My brother and the neighbor boy had climbed a couple of blocks up the hill we lived on to watch the firefighters put out a small brush fire. Eventually I joined them. I arrived in time to watch them put their equipment away, and to make arrangements for a truck to stay behind and keep an eye on the brush. The Berkeley hills are dry, and the dominant tree, at least then, was eucalyptus. Perhaps all these years later it is again.

When it became clear that the excitement was over, I went home. My brother and the neighbor boy stayed behind to try to talk to the firefighters on vigil.

The next morning was sunny and we went to church down in Oakland. My dad wore the “spanking belt” that day. I don’t ever remember him wearing it before, although at some point in my youth he must have. The spanking belt was a single-use tool, but we were now too old for spankings. Perhaps he’d thought to rehabilitate it now that his boys had basically graduated. It never did have the chance to form a new identity, because it was the only family symbol to survive the day. It ended up Frozen in Time, the only relic of the first twelve years of my life. The spanking belt had been an indifferent object to me on Saturday, but by Monday I hated that it had survived and nothing else had.

While we were worshipping on Sunday, seasonal winds called diablo swept down and reignited the dormant brush fire. It swept aside the crew that had been left behind and chased up after the eucalyptus, jumping the winding roads and trapping people in its wake. Most of the people who died in the fire died on our road. The neighbor boy watched from the back seat as his dad drove through flames, the fire having spread over the hills faster than he could drive around them.

At its peak the fire destroyed one home every eleven seconds. Weeks later we would drive through our old neighborhood. The only things still standing, as far out as we could see, were the brick chimneys of each house. That was the day I became a lifelong fan of Weber grills, as the only other objects to held their integrity in those flames had been the bowls of those Weber tripods. Our house was on a steep incline and was set on steel girders. We used to watch from above as deer would browse below. The girders had melted and lay down floppy.

On the day of the fire we eventually left dad’s office building and headed for a Red Cross shelter in Berkeley, where we all got massages from volunteer licensed massage therapists. A stranger approached us where we sat and offered to put us up in her home. We stayed two or three nights in her home. She must have been very nice, but all I remember are her teenage daughters. They would come down to the basement where we kids were in order to shower, and teased us by lingering wearing only their bath towels and talking to each other and us about making out with their boyfriends.

We had only been in our house a few months, having recently moved down from western Canada. The house being rented, and our bodies being saved, the only things we’d lost were our items and our symbols. Eventually mother’s family in the States and my dad’s family in Brazil would mail us photos of the times we’d lost, but there are almost no photos of our family in the eighties left.

We got a FEMA grant; I was amazed at the sum, fully five thousand dollars. It seems like plenty with which to start a new life. We went to thrift stores and moved out to an apartment in Walnut Creek. Over the next few months we would live in two apartments before moving out to Boston and starting fresh.

One of the apartments had a fireplace. We sat around it that winter and my mom read us the entire Trilogy of the Rings in a few weeks. I’d already read it several times by then, so that the chief effect of the reading was to comfort me through its ritual and familiarity. It’s the happiest memory of many happy ones I have of my mother.
My dad was in market research. The previous year he’d finished his post-doctorate, for which we’d moved to North America, in something called choice modeling, which is the construction of mathematical models to predict decision-making patterns. He is therefore sympathetic to surveys and survey-takers.

A couple of days after the fire we stopped at a Red Cross post for something. Some grad students from Cal Berkeley stopped and nervously asked my father if he’d be willing to fill out a survey they’d constructed to ask about reactions to extreme stress. Of course, he was.

After he’d finished he seemed relieved to report to us that the urge to sleep was a normal reaction to a crisis. It had been one of the multiple choice options answering a question about his reaction immediately after finding out about the fire.

I had been wondering about it myself. I didn’t know what to make of it. He had taken us up to his office and, as soon as we were settled, just...slept. Half of the visible world was on fire, but he had slept. We’d had to wait awake, but he waited asleep.
I don’t actually know that he was relieved when he told us. It was I who was relieved. At the time it hadn’t registered as something that bothered me. It was just one of the many things that happened that day, and that week. But, like most of the other things that happened, I hadn’t liked it. I’d simply accepted it.

After my wife and I fight, I sleep. I sleep deeply after any crisis, really. I wonder sometimes what my kids think of it, but I usually sleep anyway. And I think in passing of my dad sleeping on that couch. I wonder if it's okay.

I also wonder where our church was. I don't remember much about it. We hadn't been there for more than a few months. I remember vaguely what the pastor looked like. He was a young man. It was a small church. Our family wasn't poor. But I wonder why they did nothing. Maybe by the time they offered we had already made other plans. Maybe my dad was grumpy when they reached out. This was before cell phones, and maybe no one at our church knew how to contact us. I don't know. But thinking through all my moves and some seventeen churches I've been a part of through that, I can't help but be cynical about it.

I want to believe that the church is our family, but most of my life leads me to think only family is family. I have to take the family of faith on faith.


  1. This is the most beautiful and most real thing you've ever written here.

  2. My in-laws call my family "the toast family." A southern white Baptist family, skirts for the girls and comb-overs for the boys. At dinner, our silverware clinking against the plates is the loudest sound in the room. Once, after being seated at a restaurant, the waiter reviewed the specials and asked for our drink order. After we all ordered water, he informed us the margaritas were $1 off. My mother, in a huff, said "No thank you, we don't drink or smoke. We're the good guys." With a chuckle, the waiter told us he would be back shortly, with some waters and some Bibles, to take our dinner order.
    We are as dry and white as toast.
    My in-laws are Cuban. When my wife and I were dating, I'd go to her house to spend time with her family. Her family's inside voices were the same volume that would have caused my mother to scold me had I been that loud playing outside. I often mistakenly assumed they were angry at each other until they broke into another peal of laughter. As boisterous as her family was, her grandfather was the loud one of the family. Before he escaped Cuba, he was a professional opera singer, and he could often be heard belting out a favorite aria when he wasn't telling everyone how things should be.
    He died on September 6th, eighteen days ago, in the early morning, in the family home, with his wife, daughter, and son-in-law surrounding him. His congestive heart failure took him to the Lord he loved so much his whole life.
    Like most immigrant families, the oldest generation spoke very little English, the second generation, having been born in Cuba but moved at a young age, spoke English and Spanish equally well, and the third generation, my wife and her sister, understands some Spanish, but only speaks English. Because of the language barrier, her grandparents and I had spoken very little. But they did so much to make me feel loved and welcomed. I couldn't come over, even for just a couple minutes, without her grandmother offering me black beans and rice or her grandfather giving me flan and cafe Cubano. In his last days, I took great joy in sitting with him and showing him YouTube videos of my favorite opera singers, telling him they were the best, and getting stern looks and finger wags from him before he showed me videos of his favorite singers. In the three months leading to his death, he was hardly able to get up from his chair to walk a few steps to the other side of the room to get circulation again. He and his wife were unable to attend a single church service at the Spanish church they regularly attended. His pastor visited him twice, but his friend Plácido visited him often.
    The pastor of the church my wife, her parents, and I attend visited twice as well. My father-in-law is an elder. My wife and I are Sunday school teachers. We were assistants to the youth pastor even before we married, and then young adults teachers not long after we married a little over three years ago. No one in our church visited. Not a single elder texted, emailed, or called. Though we had been craving prayers, the Sunday before he passed away, before the service began, our pastor announced to the congregation that one of the church family was having frequent headaches and should be in our prayers. There was never a word for prayer for my wife's grandfather.

  3. This morning, after much cajoling last night, my wife and I drove her grandmother to her church. When we pulled up to the front of the church, I jumped out to open her door for her and to help her out. It was at that moment that I realized, though I'd hugged her often, I've never kissed her. With her weathered bible in her hands and a sad look on her face, she told me she loved me very much. I gave her as big of a bear hug as I could without hurting her, then kissed her on the cheek and told her I loved her too. As she turned to walk into her church for the first time alone, I saw, waiting outside the front door, were Mario and Plácido, her husband’s two best friends. They came to her, stood on either side, and offered their arms. She smiled and was escorted inside.
    Churches aren't their own beings. The church is just people. People let me down every day of my life. Why do I expect anything more from my church? As I smoke the Cuban cigar my mother-in-law gave me from her first trip back to her homeland since she was sixteen, drink the wine that my father-in-law introduced me to, and listen to the hum of the air conditioner units of the whole neighborhood, in the sweltering New Orleans early fall, I count to three. Three men. There are three men in the whole world that I could picture escorting my wife into our church after I'm gone, and I sigh, because none of them live here.

    1. Moving.

      And how often we shape our prayers to what we think God will or won't do for us.


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