Beauty for ashes, gladness instead of mourning
“Sir, Ma’am…fire!” We popped out of bed disoriented and pumped with adrenalin. In the early morning darkness, somewhere around 4 am, Susan and I ran out of our room and saw the fire’s glow at the other end of the building where 24 children under our care slept soundly.
I grabbed the fire extinguisher as I ran to the back bedroom and began spraying at the flames. I could almost hear the fire laugh out loud at my feeble attempt to put it out.
I threw the emptied extinguisher on the floor and helped grab the babies in cribs closest to the fire. It was chaotic…intense heat…overwhelming.
We brought the babies and children out to the lawn in front of our building. As I ran back to rescue more children, I could hear the circuit breakers popping and cracking as sparks lit up our kitchen area.
My wife cried out with desperation, “Leanna!” Our teenaged daughter was trapped in her upstairs bedroom. “Go! I’ll keep getting the others!”
Susan dashed up the stairs. As she took hold of the doorknob, she cried out in anguish to our daughter over the roar of the flames and as the doorknob seared her hand.
They stumbled and crawled down the stairs through the smoke to where we gathered the children on the lawn.
A wrenching reality
As we counted the children and staff, a sickening realization wrenched our gut. We hadn’t gotten all the children out!
As Susan started to run back in, the intensity of the heat and spectacle of flames made it clear—no one else could be rescued. As she cried out, “My babies!” I restrained my wife from a desperate attempt to save those missing.
Some of our staff woke three of the older children but they fell back asleep. Two of the babies were consumed by the fire before we could reach them. We were stunned and in shock—mesmerized by the raging fire and tragic reality.
Thankfully, someone—a neighbor, a friend? We don’t know. But they backed the only vehicle we owned away from the building. It was an old car built to hold six to eight people.
We piled ourselves into and onto the car—nineteen babies and children and a few staff and our family.
As we drove into the darkness of the early morning, the firetruck arrived—too late to be of any help but to douse the twisted ruins of our children’s home.
As we drove out our driveway, dodging the firetruck and weaving through the onlooking neighbors, we headed to the only place of refuge we knew. All we had was each other and what we wore to bed.
We were stunned and in shock — mesmerized by the raging fire and tragic reality
A distant call to our hearts
Almost two years before we left the US for the Philippines, my wife and I experienced a new calling on our lives but separately. Not that we would be separated but God spoke to our hearts about two distinct ministry visions in the same country.
We owned our home, our children were doing well in school, and we enjoyed serving in the church I started a decade earlier. Things were good. But God stirred our hearts to leave our home and transition the church to new leadership so we could move to the Philippines.
We survived our rookie years on the mission field and loved our life and the ministries we served in and the people we worked alongside. Over a few years, two ministries began to grow and develop from small beginnings.
I joined an existing ministry committed to training national pastors and leaders, and my wife and I founded and developed a ministry for abandoned babies and children—newborn to five years.
Vision and reality
It’s one thing to have a vision for what could be and to see it develop in a tangible way. But when that vision is interrupted by tragedy or some other great obstacle, it requires us to do one of three things—
- hold on to the original vision without changing it
- abandon or give up on the vision
- adjust the vision to reality
Both of our ministry visions changed because of the realities we faced. We chose to adjust these visions rather than abandon them because of circumstances beyond our control.
As our ministries grew, so did our staff. Most of our staff were Filipinos but fellow missionaries began to join both ministries. Our ministries became entry-level opportunities for people to enter cross-cultural missions.
Questions and decisions
Immediately after the tragic fire, we needed to make some decisions. These decisions had direct impacts on the ministries we served, especially the ministry to children.
The first decision was made before we came to the Philippines. We were asked by several people, including my pastor friends in the US, “Will you return to the States now?” Our immediate and unified answer was no!
Though we endured tragedy and now faced a major obstacle, God’s call on our lives and His vision in our hearts hadn’t changed. It was part of who we were and we didn’t consider any alternatives.
Other decisions included—Where would we house the children and ourselves? What will we do with the property we’d been given for the children’s home and the ruins of our main building? How would we pay for another building on the site?
These were just a few of the questions we needed to answer and many more would follow. And this brings me back to the story.
God’s call on our lives and His vision in our hearts hadn’t changed
Caretakers who needed care
We arrived at the training center in the early morning darkness. The training ministry grew to include a Bible school with students housed on site with guest rooms where we could host visiting ministry teams.
A missions team arrived the previous afternoon, so there was no room for us but in the classroom/dining area. After a few hours, as word got around our small town, some missionary friends offered to house us temporarily in their large home. They had a few empty rooms and some nice open space including a nice fenced yard. It was perfect! Temporary but perfect.
We outnumbered them but they were gracious and helpful in so many ways.
We were glad to have a place to stay but were still in shock. My wife and I had second-degree burns along with a couple of our babies. Our ministry was to take care of babies and children but now we needed to be cared for by others.
We were caretakers of children but now needed to be cared for by others
We had so many needs—housing, clothing, diapers, food, and medical care.
We also needed to make arrangements for the five children who died in the fire. We were grieving and dealing with psychological and physical shock. We needed help with this too.
Though I was an experienced pastor, I was in no shape to organize and lead a funeral service. A dear friend of mine and former missionary was with another mission team on a nearby island. When he heard of our tragedy, he offered to do the service in our town.
As my friend officiated the service, we were in a daze—at least I was—numbed with shock, sorrow, and pain. Looking back, it’s easy to see we were traumatized. And yet, there were more decisions to be made, as we coped with our own recovery and ongoing ministry work.
What to do now?
Everything seemed in a suspended state. We were in temporary housing. We wore donated and borrowed clothing. Our home—the children’s and ours—was in ruins and needed attention but we weren’t in a place to do much.
We considered our options and many stepped forward to help us. After an extended week in our friends home, we moved into the training center. The babies and toddlers moved into one guest room, the older children into another, and our family of three into the third guest room.
The Bible school students were in the two dorms on the ground floor, so our live-in staff moved in with them. We were one big cozy family. We made do.
By mixing our offices and staff as one large community, we operated both ministries at the training center for almost a year. It was a special time for us. Great relationships were developed as we worked and served together.
The burned out building was another story. As we surveyed the twisted steel beams and gutted concrete walls, it was bewildering. We sifted through the ashes only to find unrecoverable remnants of our life and ministry.
Our files were salvageable, as were a few photos, but they smelled of smoke with their burnt edges. I found the headstock of my guitar but all my songs were beyond salvaging. Songs I wrote for each of our four children and our wedding were now in ashes. Gone.
Out of the ashes…hope
One of our missionary friends, an Aussie who developed a local business, offered his crew to come and clean up the building site. Looking back, it’s hard to recount how great a burden was lifted from us by this brother.
It was a tremendous relief but it was more than that. It was a reminder of God’s graciousness. What we could not do, He would. It was a significant turning point for us. It gave us hope. A renewed hope for the vision God gave us years before.
Of course, this overwhelming event drove us to our knees and to the Scriptures to seek the Lord’s comfort, grace, and guidance. God spoke to Susan’s heart through this text out of the prophet Isaiah—
…to comfort all who mourn, and provide for those who grieve in Zion– to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair. They will be called oaks of righteousness, a planting of the Lord for the display of his splendor. They will rebuild… (Isaiah 61:2–4 NIV 84)
It became a foundation for our renewed hope and vision for the ministry.
“They will rebuild…”
The mission team who came the night before the fire planned to help paint and work on the building. Since it was in ruins, we moved to plan B. That week, along with ministering to all of us in a personal way, they formed and dug footings and poured the foundation for our next building.
This building would become our home and allow us to oversee the rebuilding of the home for the babies and children.
Within a day or two of the fire, I received a call from someone in Australia who wanted to send a team to help us rebuild. I didn’t know who they were or how they got our name but I knew we needed their help.
This relief ministry sent several teams over the next months into the next year as the rebuilding took shape. It is still amazing to me how a small ministry in a not-so-well-known area of the Philippines received so much attention.
God brought us comfort and provision. He turned ashes into beauty in so many ways. He gave us gladness and praise to displace our grief and sadness.
In fact, we kept expecting a time of depression, which would be normal after such a traumatic experience. It never came. I attribute this to prayer—not ours but the prayer of thousands.
Many years later, as I spoke in churches far from our home, people would come up afterward to tell me how they had prayed for us though they only knew our situation. Amazing!
We also developed beautiful lifelong relationships as the ministry started to recover and as the rebuilding took place.
A side benefit of our move into the training center was the bonding between our two staffs and the students, along with our family. We were crowded together, ate together, worshipped and prayed together, and had fun together.
Our lives were changed as were many others who were part of the tragedy and the restoration.
When we stayed to continue the ministry, one of our Filipino friends whom we didn’t know well at the time said to us, “Now I know that you really love and care for us.”
One of the Aussies even moved over to work with us and the ministry, and later adopted one of the children who survived the fire. But that’s a story all in itself to be told another time.
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