When my son Eric graduated from college in Malibu, California, he took his first job as youth pastor of the church he had been attending for four years. I visited that church several times and was struck by something strange every time. The rather new, imposing, richly designed sanctuary of that church was built on a bluff overlooking the ocean. It was a billion-dollar view. But the pews all faced in, toward a wall, away from the ocean. If I sat in the right spot and craned my neck toward a back wall, I could look out the picture windows onto the ocean vista bordered with waving palm trees, while the pastor talked up in front. I wondered if he or his predecessor had decided on this configuration. Maybe the original pastor had thought, “I can’t have this view competing with my reading and interpretation of the Word of God.” Eric agreed that it was a strange way to situate a sanctuary.
One Sunday morning in October, an hour before the church service was to start, an enormous ravenous wildfire, many stories high, raced down the main route through Malibu Canyon. When it hit the open air of the west coast, it lit upon the first thing it came to: the wooden steeple of the church. It was only a few minutes before the whole building was on fire. The few people who were setting up for church escaped before the flames dwarfed and devoured the two-story church, its administration building and its lush landscaping, with exotic flowers and fruit trees. All of that was burned to ash in a few minutes.
When Eric was a baby in Oregon, he saw spruces waving outside our window, and he said, “Trees say bye.” Something caught in my throat at the time, and I knew it would be a hard road for such a poet. “That’s right,” I told him; “trees say hi, too.”
A month after the fire, I came to visit the remains of the church. Eric mentioned with a wink that the head pastor and an architect were already drawing out a rough sketch of the new church, to be built on the ruins of the old one, but this time with the pews facing the ocean. Eric was no longer in a big office of his own, overlooking the garden with its lemon and persimmon trees. He had a tiny room in a trailer overlooking the black, ghostly foundation where the church had sat.
He and I walked sadly across the parking lot, which had liquefied and resolidified strangely in the fire. As we mounted the wide concrete steps to the foundation, we passed a rainbow-chalked heart with a peace sign scrawled inside. The wildfire had left nothing of the church itself but a bombed-out landscape of charred Bibles, a few folding metal chairs and here and there some black timbers, like piles of burnt matchsticks. But out past the devastation was the view, better than ever, the sky and ocean with arms outstretched, gracious, with seabirds, palm trees and waves, all waving at us.
— Margaret Kellermann