A homeowner impacted by last year’s Colorado wildfire joins with Samaritan’s Purse to help and encourage those currently facing a similar tragedy.
James McKenzie jumped at the chance to help homeowners affected by the Black Forest Fire in Colorado last month because he understands what they are going through.
“The fact that you can’t ever touch that quilt of your grandmother’s again, is just devastating,” McKenzie explained. “You realize pretty quickly that you’re losing memories. You’re losing the ability to enjoy the richness of life. You don’t have the baby blanket that your mom cuddled you in anymore … It’s just gone. And you know that you will not be able to ever completely recapture those memories. To have someone that understands that goes a long way.”
McKenzie speaks from experience. In June 2012, the Waldo Canyon Wildfire destroyed the home in Colorado Springs where he and his wife had lived for 20 years. For a while, McKenzie said he felt adrift, trying to process what they had been through. But after connecting with others in a grief recovery workshop at an area church, he and his wife were able to face the future and begin moving forward.
A year after the fire that took his home, he eagerly volunteered with Samaritan’s Purse to help minister to those devastated by the most recent fires.
For McKenzie, joining the 800 people volunteering through Samaritan’s Purse provided an opportunity to give back.
“This is cathartic,” he said. “This is wonderful, being able to be the hands and feet of Christ to someone else that I understand where they are.”
McKenzie said waiting during the fire itself, reliving the fear and the uncertainty, was tough. He and his wife housed a couple who were in mandatory evacuation—friends who had provided a place for the McKenzies to live for two weeks the year before. Thankfully the fire spared this couple’s house, but more than 500 other families faced the process of sorting through the rubble of their burned-down homes.
Dealing with his own loss helped McKenzie connect with the homeowners. While he understood their feelings on a deeper level than volunteers who had not faced the same type of tragedy, McKenzie said he still wasn’t an expert.
“I came out here just to be a helping hand, to just help somebody find something,” he said. “When you find some little thing that looks so insignificant, you don’t know what kind of value that has to the person … It’s something they want to touch again, even if they don’t keep it.”
Encouraging Others Through Experience
McKenzie’s experience placed him in a position to encourage the residents and point them toward their next steps.
“We have the benefit of having been through a year,” McKenzie said. “Obviously we are nowhere near the end of the [grieving] process. At least we can say ‘You got to plug in, you got to get with a mentor program … You have got to connect with other people … who understand that your loss is on a far greater dimension than just some stuff.’”
One of the homeowners said McKenzie was able to offer her some good advice about insurance and how to approach dealing with this disaster.
“It’s helpful to hear it from someone who’s been through it,” she said. “And he was very kind, very warmhearted.”
McKenzie said engaging in the relief efforts helped him continue the healing process.
“There are so many personal business items that you have to attend to, to get your life back on track, to get through the disaster … You wake up, and it’s just like life has just become so self-absorbed, you know, through necessity,” he explained. “It’s time to quit being so self-absorbed about the whole thing and go do something … It’s a great opportunity, a great blessing, to be able just to do something for someone else who’s hurting on that same level.”
The past 12 months have been filled with ups and downs for McKenzie and his wife.
“It’s been an opportunity, really, for us to plumb the depths of God’s provision, to plumb the depths of His love and His care,” McKenzie said. “You don’t get an opportunity in life, too often, to really have to go there … In North America, we tend to live our life every day in a pretty self-sufficient mode: ‘I’ll handle it myself.’”
In that mindset, it is easy to question whether God really cares about the small things, or whether He is really trustworthy with the big problems, McKenzie said.
“This has been a year where we really didn’t have that option,” he continued. “You really get to plumb those depths, and find out that He’s enough. And you know, the miracles are small and the miracles are big.”
McKenzie recounted the role Samaritan’s Purse volunteers played last year when all but four of the nearly 30 homes on his street burned down. He and Sheila and the three grown sons they raised in that house had already spent time going through the ashes and were not sure they really needed the help of Samaritan’s Purse. But since they had not yet found Sheila’s wedding ring, the McKenzies decided to give it a chance.
“Man, you guys showed up with … it must have been two dozen, I mean it was this army of people,” McKenzie said. “The crew was great. They found Sheila’s ring in about 20 minutes. We were so shocked. And a bunch of other cool stuff, some tools of my dad’s that I hadn’t gotten out. They were great, just so much ministry, I mean it wasn’t really about the stuff just the ministry of the people.”
McKenzie said it was impossible for people to ever put something like this completely behind them.
“Get in touch with people who will help you grapple with the emotional roller coaster that will create for months to come,” he advised. “We’ve just learned to accept the fact that God’s been good and given us a great opportunity to move forward and to begin to make some new memories. But we will not ever be the same people.”