calendar February 14, 2009 in Communications, Disaster Response

Churches help Coatesville cope with fear

No fires have been reported in the last week, but the fear is still here.  At last week’s overnight with our confirmation students, several youth who live within the city limits told us they are sleeping near the front door, and that some family members were sleeping in shifts, just in case…

At first, last year, when a few arson fires were being reported, no one became too concerned.  The fires hadn’t been close enough.  And then came the devastating fire of January 24, 2009 on Fleetwood Street when fifteen homes were destroyed and 12 families displaced overnight.  Suddenly, the arsons were on everyone’s radar and people began to respond.

On January 25, the first response was from the people of Coatesville.  Family, friends, pastors, neighbors, school officials, city officials, and total strangers came to the aid of the residents of Fleetwood Street.  It was an outpouring of love, care and support by this community unmatched in my 21 years as pastor of Good Shepherd. 

Later that same day, the ministers of Coatesville and vicinity met to talk about how we, as the clergy of the city, could and should respond.  We came up with a list of agencies and contact persons who could provide help of every nature to those who had been burned out.  Also, that same day, the city of Coatesville began organizing a town watch.  City officials and state officials also began working together on finding the arsonist, or arsonists, responsible for the Fleetwood fire and the dozens that had preceded it.  Eventually, federal officials would be added to those who are trying to bring an end to the fires.

Because the Fleetwood fire made the national news, phone calls and emails began coming to the residents of Coatesville from around the country, and in fact, the world, asking if we were safe. Congregations from Chester Conference and around the synod began asking how they could help.  It was amazing.  Grace was happening in the midst of tragedy.

One particular email was especially welcomed, that of Julia Menzo of Lutheran Disaster Response.  Julia works out of Liberty Lutheran Social Services but is our ELCA regional coordinator for LDR.  She came to a town meeting on the Wednesday following the Fleetwood fire and returned the following night to help our congregation council make some critical decisions on how best to proceed with our ongoing response.

Through LDR and the skill and guidance of Julia, we agreed to open our building to the next disaster that might strike.  We didn’t know if or when it might happen, but we wanted to be ready.  We also decided to apply to the American Red Cross to become a disaster site.  We have a building.  We have showers and a big kitchen.  We even have cots.  Whatever else we need, the Red Cross will tell us.

As the days and weeks have passed since January 25, the county and city agencies have assisted each of the families with temporary housing and food.  People from everywhere sent clothing, much more than will ever be needed.  Lots of furniture has been donated and must be warehoused until families can find permanent housing.  Food has been donated, with more needed, at a local food cupboard.  And, of course, money has been collected and used to help all the families who have been displaced by the fires over the last year.

When the fires are finally finished, one of the ongoing needs of our community will be counseling for those who have been traumatized.  And again, LDR has been helpful.  A meeting of clergy and interested people from Coatesville met this past week to discuss how best to provide for the emotional needs of not only the fire victims but of the entire community.  Pastor Linda Hatcher from LDR and a fire chaplain attended this meeting along with Carole Thomas of Good Shepherd.  Pr. Hatcher has skills in helping communities respond to emotional needs of citizens following a disaster.  Ms. Thomas is a trained Stephen Minister leader in our congregation and has enlisted the support of all nine of our Stephen Ministers to become “care-givers” to any in the city who desire to be a “care-receiver.” 

We are coping as well as we can.  The four most recent fires were set outside the city limits so it is no longer a “city issue,” it is a community issue.  Everyone is encouraged to put their front and back porch lights on at night – and we’re doing it. 

Your prayers and your support have been wonderful.  Truly, we in Coatesville and at Good Shepherd have felt the embrace of the entire church and we thank you from the bottom of our hearts. As we have needs, we will let you know.  For now, continue to pray officials will bring the arsonist(s) to justice and to bring healing to those whose lives have been so severely disrupted.  

Ongoing updates may be found at

Your fellow servant in Christ,
John Carlson,  Pastor
Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd, Coatesville, PA