One of the big headlines of 1996 was the devastating firestorm that swept through heavily populated areas of North County on Oct. 21. Like many churches in the area, the congregation of North Coast Presbyterian Church in Encinitas was deeply impacted. Many of the members and attenders of NCPC live in the areas including Elfin Forest, San Marcos, Olivenhain, La Costa and Encinitas. When the winds finally ceased and the devastation was done, over 100 homes were totally destroyed.
Although no homes of the membership of North Coast Presbyterian Church were burned down, many had their homes threatened by the raging fires and were forced to evacuate. Everyone felt the nearness of the horror and, in many cases, saw their neighbors’ and friends’ homes burn down.
One member of NCPC, Bill Pierce, was featured on the news media because his home was saved by three Marines and a plumber who risked their lives for a stranger’s home. As Bill explained the following Sunday morning at NCPC (with the three Marines present), there was one important detail left out. Bill and his wife had fled from their home with the firestorm literally blinding their view as they drove, by memory only, down their street and out of the neighborhood. Bill, believing in the power of prayer, drove to the parking lot of the closest grocery store, called NCPC Pastor Don Seltzer, and together they prayed for God’s mercy and help. Shortly after they prayed (as Bill later discovered) the Marines showed up and decided — in spite of what nearby firemen said — to try and save Bill’s home, which they did.
Meanwhile, even before the ashes had even settled in the community, the NCPC church office was inundated by the calls of people asking what they could do to help. Three days later, after prayer and reflection, the idea came to have a church-wide and community-wide Garage Sale, with total proceeds benefitting the fire victims. Further, it was decided that the “victims” (who later expressed that they wished to be called “survivors”) would be invited to come into the church the day before the sale and help themselves to anything that they wanted.
Thanks to the outstanding help of NCPC member Amy Causey, within two days thousands of fliers were produced, posters were made and, after a Sunday morning call for help, over 100 volunteers had signed on the dotted line. The effort was on!
By Monday morning, one week after the fire, donations started pouring in. With the help of courtesy radio and television announcements and many fliers distributed throughout the community, a steady stream of cars pulled up in front of NCPC to drop off carloads and often truckloads of clothing, housewares, linens, and miscellaneous necessities for daily living.
Literally mounds and mounds of “good stuff” began to fill the church. Within a short time, it became obvious that the entire facility would be needed to house the merchandise. The children’s Adventure Kingdom building became the logical place for children’s clothing and toys. A specialty “Infant Room” filled another classroom. A high-class “Ladies Back Room Boutique” filled another. The outside patio became the overflow place for sporting goods, children’s bikes and outdoor play equipment, and ultimately mounds of clothes called the “Bargain Basement” that no one had time to sort!
Most unbelievable of all, the main auditorium of the church, which also serves as a gymnasium, was filled to the brim with men’s clothing, housewares, linens, women’s clothing, electronics, adult shoes, books, golf clubs and furniture. As one astounded man expressed it, “This was not a garage sale, this was a one stop shopping spree!”
An army of about 30 women had worked practically around the clock to sort and organize the many bags of donated items. At times the task seemed almost insurmountable, and towards the end, some cars were actually turned away to another garage sale. Only one thing kept the women going and that was a sense of purpose to make a difference in the lives of others — with Christ’s strength and help.
So what was the end result? On Friday, the day before the sale, 33 survivor families drove away with clothes, furniture, linens, and other basic necessities to help them get back on their feet. The tears in their eyes, the smiles on their faces, the hugs between neighbors told the whole story.
Then, on Saturday, with the united effort of about 90 men and women helping the more than 2,000 people that came through the doors of NCPC, more than $12,000 was raised on behalf of the fire survivors, which has been donated to the local fire disaster relief fund of the American Red Cross. As Pastor Seltzer said on the next day at church, “That’s a lot of 25-cent T-shirts!”
And that was not all. At the end of the sale, the North Coast Chaplaincy filled two vans full of jackets and sweaters, the Salvation Army filled almost two truckloads of goods, huge bundles of clothes were given to a Mexican Mission and at least one homeless family was fully clothed at no charge.
After all was said and done, many people likened the astonishing results to Jesus feeding the multitude with five small loaves and fishes. To imagine that all of this was planned and accomplished — by His grace — in no more than seven days!
A spokesman for North Coast Presbyterian said they consider it a privilege to have provided a channel for so many others to show how much they care. And so many did. And they showed that they cared by their contributions and their tangible help. As one fire survivor said so eloquently at the morning service following the garage sale at NCPC: “Yes, my house burned down, but also so did 50 years of cynicism.”