Melissa O'Brien

Tents at the Chico, California Walmart serve as temporary shelter for people displaced by the Camp Fire that began on November 8. Photo by Melissa O’Brien

I think maybe you don’t know, you really can’t know—until you stand next to a person in the coffee line at the Best Western who tells you that it was a wall of fire on both sides and that they dodged falling trees the whole way down—what it’s like to survive something like the Camp Fire.

You can see the images on your TV and in your newspaper and you can talk with your friends and neighbors about the fires; the sorrow from watching the videos of the charred remains of people’s homes. You can watch from curiosity from afar as the search and rescue people comb the ashes for evidence of the missing.

But until you see the parking lots full of rescue vehicles and the fields full of tents, it’s not really real.

I’m in Chico as I write this. It’s real. It is so very real.

“We watched the people behind us get crushed by a burning tree that fell on their car,” he told me as he was adding the cream to his coffee.

“Did you have time to take any of your things?” I inquired, hungry to know his story.
“No, it was just my wife and me, some clothes. No pictures, nothing like that.”

It’s always the pictures people want. They want the story of who they are. Because, of course, when you lose everything, how do you know it’s you?

What becomes home when home is now ashes?

“Where will you go?” I asked him.

“We don’t really know,” he said, “maybe San Diego.”

The parking lot at the Walmart is, indeed, filled with people. Some are living in their cars. Some have campers—the lucky ones, it seems. The field beside the Walmart is dotted with tents. The hotels are all filled with the displaced and first responders.

This could very much be a story about turning to your loved ones and telling them you love them; about cherishing everything you have, knowing we live in a volatile and unstable world, but it’s not. This is a call to action, a cry from the wilderness, from the reality of our lives in 2018, if you will. I know that you don’t have time nor the inclination, most likely, to go to a place where there has been a natural disaster, but I do know that there are people in their own kind of exile 25 miles down the road, in Burlington.

And if you ignore this reality, you are doing little to balance the scales of suffering that affect all of us. I know that you cannot travel thousands of miles to sit and talk with people who are desperate to tell their story, whose former home is a pile of ashes, whose entire community is gone, who need a hug and a cup of coffee, but you can show up for people in similar straits in your own communities. And I’m not talking about writing a check or attending a fundraiser, either. I’m talking about using your life to better the conditions of someone who is suffering.

I’m talking about presence. I have nothing to offer the people here in Chico but myself and my time. Here’s the good news: it’s enough.

This is why we are here, people. We are here to be present for one another and not just in the kinds of polite and comfortable situations we often create in order to be able to go into places of need. We like very much to keep the homeless and the hungry, the displaced and suffering at arm’s length, most often, but I will tell you something astonishing about the homeless and the hungry: they are somebody’s son or daughter, they have a story, just like you.

As we head into the season, the rush, the buying, the madness, I issue a challenge to you, dear reader. I challenge you to move outside your zone of comfort, of familiarity and make yourself available to someone in this world in a place you have never gone before. Maybe prison, maybe one of the shelters nearby, maybe a nursing home. There are lonely, cold, worried people in very short driving distance to where you are.

I will tell everyone I meet here about the beautiful town on the shores of Lake Champlain where I came from, about the newspaper I care about, about my daughter and her terrific school there if you promise to at least try to rise to the challenge of serving this world with your life, with your self, your eyes, ears, hands, heart. The very best gift you have—yourself— to give to anyone.

Deal? Deal.