Only one road led south out of Fort McMurray—right past the wildfire—and it was a miracle that everyone made it out safely, says Jeremy Munn of the diocese of Athabasca.
Richmond Hill, Ont.
In an emotional address to General Synod Saturday, July 9, an Anglican evacuee from the Fort McMurray wildfire described what he called “an outpouring of the Holy Spirit” and a series of miracles as the residents of the threatened city came together to help one another.
Struggling to speak through his emotions, Jeremy Munn, a lay member from the diocese of Athabasca and a Fort McMurray resident, told General Synod that he was still trying to make sense of what happened in the days following Tuesday, May 3, when a wildfire burning to the southwest of the city suddenly approached and entered it.
“In my mind, I’m still working through it. But I would say that I have never seen in my life such an outpouring of the Holy Spirit, and I was thinking as I came up that my life stopped that day at 3 o’clock,” Munn said. It was clear to him that life as he knew it might be completely transformed by the fire.
“Everything that I had considered important ceased to matter,” he said. “I had no job. I had no house, I had no property. Everything I thought up to that point was important was not. I tried to pack a suitcase. Everything I needed was in my van: my four daughters, my wife, my three dogs and two cats. That was it.”
Reports that the needs of some people or communities of people were neglected in the days when fire threatened the city don’t match his own experience at all, Munn said.
“It wasn’t like that,” he said. “It wasn’t that one community was marginalized. It was that there was no distinction anymore. There was no minority community to me; there was no immigrant community; there was no Native American community. It was family.”
Only one road led south out of Fort McMurray, Munn said—right past the wildfire—and yet everyone made it out safely.
“It’s a miracle that God can work like that. But he didn’t work alone,” Munn continued. “The miracle was that everybody stopped asking, ‘What can I get out of this?’ ‘What’s in this for me?’ and said, ‘What can I do for my neighbour?’ ”
Because of the commonness of shift work in the city, many of its residents sleep during the day—and many were no doubt sleeping while the fire raged.
“At any given time, your neighbour’s sound asleep. In the day, the night—it doesn’t matter,” he said. As the fire continued to spread through the city, Munn said, residents, disregarding the danger, tried to wake up their sleeping neighbours.
“There were people literally with their backyards on fire trying to break into their neighbour’s house while their kids were sitting in their vehicle,” he said. “That is the kind of love and grace that—I can’t even put it into words.”
Miracles happened outside the city as well, Munn said. He himself, unable to take the highway south, had to take refuge in mining camps north of the city. These camps were somehow able to support many more evacuees than they should have, he said.
“A number of oil companies opened their camps, for 25,000 people,” he said. “They can’t hold 25,000 people. If you want a miracle, where did the food come from for 25,000 people per week? There shouldn’t have been enough; there shouldn’t have been water; there shouldn’t have been food; there shouldn’t have been shelter—but there was.”
He and other evacuees also felt themselves enormously comforted by prayers and expressions of support that somehow reached them over the Internet, which managed to work despite the fire.
“I think that’s what got a lot of people through,” Munn said. “It wasn’t the Red Cross or the government or anything else—it was all of us acting Christ-like to one another. It had nothing to do with a program or any institution. It had [to do with] us living our faith in love.”
Members of General Synod also heard from Fraser Lawton, bishop of Athabasca, the diocese in which Fort McMurray falls. In his address, Lawton thanked the many people who responded quickly with prayers, as well as The Primate’s World Relief and Development Fund, which quickly committed emergency relief funding, and the Red Cross for its support. He thanked as well the dioceses of Edmonton and Calgary, which, he said, provided “incredible” help in hosting evacuees.
Although fire destroyed about a tenth of the city’s infrastructure, Lawton said, the diocese’s church buildings are all basically intact. But it will take a long time for the city’s residents to come to terms with the disaster, he said.
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Tali Folkins has worked as a staff reporter for the Law Times and the New Brunswick Telegraph-Journal. His writing has appeared in The Globe and Mail and The United Church Observer.
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