You never know how the Lord will orchestrate ministry opportunities, but Dale Garland, Pastor at Hope in the Valley Baptist Church in Hemet, knows firsthand that simply being available was all he needed for God to work.
It was Labor Day, and many from the Garland family had gathered for the holiday when neighbors began making calls about a fire coming over the ridge of their neighborhood. The origins of the Fairview fire are still unknown. Still, as the day progressed, the family gathered the photo albums and packed up their cars in anticipation of what would likely become an evacuation scenario.
That night, the Garland family left before evacuation orders were handed down. The family opted to sleep at the church for one night but returned home the next day when, by all appearances, it seemed the fire was redirecting itself. Tuesday night Garland and his wife took shifts between sleeping and keeping watch. They would leave if it looked like the fire was coming down again.
Meanwhile, CSBC Disaster Relief Director Mike Bivens had called Garland to check in, asking, “Would it be helpful for you and your community if Disaster Relief funded you with 1,000 dollars?” Little did Garland know, but this was opportunity #1.
He took it.
On Thursday, Garland decided to return to work. As he drove out of his neighborhood, he immediately found city officials putting up barricades. He was out and was told he would not be able to return until the “all-clear” was given. This was unanticipated but opportunity-#2.
That’s when inspiration struck.
Garland could have stayed at the church again or called any number of close friends or congregation members. Instead, he turned that thousand dollars into $25 Walmart gift cards and immediately checked himself into the local shelter as an evacuee. He prayed, “Lord, I’m here. Use me how you want to…with a pocket full of gift cards.”
“When you’re an evacuee,” Garland shared, “you have full access to go wherever you need throughout the shelter. So, I just went around and talked to people, looking for fire-related needs.” As Garland continued his conversation, he quickly realized that it’s a particular type of person who finds themselves needing reprieve in a shelter. “Wealthy people stay in a hotel. Well-connected people stay with their friends. Here, in the shelters, are the disenfranchised.” He continued, “And there were also a lot of sick people too.”
One man at dinner shared that the house he was renting was lost in the fires. He was now officially homeless, and he hadn’t packed in time. Where he lived, two other people had died early in the fire. “He was a believer and had a strong faith,” said Garland, who helped him with $100 worth of clothes.
In, what Garland described as a “God-Inspired and God-motivated idea,” he handed the man two additional Walmart gift cards. He charged him to walk around and find two other people to bless.
That was opportunity #3
In a different encounter, Garland came upon one lady wearing an extra-long t-shirt, standing by a pile of donated clothes. He asked, “Can I help you find something?”
She replied, “I can’t find any pants.” She only found pants for her daughter but none that would fit her.
Garland says, “Can I help you get new clothes?” He gifted her a Walmart card. She started crying and told him, “I haven’t had pants for days.”
Mental health workers were also on-site; by this point, shelter leadership began to recognize Garland as a resource. He was invited into a discussion regarding a gentleman in a mentally unstable state who needed expert care. The mental health workers were women, and while they had made arrangements for a hospital stay, they could not drive the man there, so Garland stepped in again to serve. “I can take him to the facility.”
During his conversation with the man, he learned that he hadn’t eaten, so the fifth opportunity was presented, and another card was gifted and received with tears of gratefulness.
Later, Salvation Army leaders approached Garland and directed him to a nearby father of 3. The children’s mother had tragically died during childbirth, leaving him with 3 children and one newborn. However, Garland soon learned that after the baby’s arrival, social workers decided to place the newborn into foster care because the father was burdened with the 3 older children. That was 8 months ago.
When Garland began conversing with the father, he asked, “what do you need?” The father, though in a shelter and tending to his other three children, said he was fine but inquired about help with the paperwork to get custody of his baby. Dale stayed and talked with the man. Afterward, Garland left 3 gift cards with the mental health workers and directed them to give the gift cards to the father.
As Garland recounted the boundless opportunities in his 24-hour shelter stay, he said, “Giving away the money is one thing but mostly it was a blessing to have the ability to walk around and just talk to people. And there were a lot of opportunities to pray with others.” He also said, “Honestly, I really wanted to go home but once that door was closed, I knew I had to go serve at the shelter.”
Garland expressed that there is a good deal of follow-up that still needs to happen with many of these individuals, but it was evident that the Lord was working during that one day. The following Sunday, the father in the throes of the custody issue came to Hope in the Valley Baptist Church with his children. He found Garland and said, “I was baptized Mormon but YOU have really shown me Christ’s love and I’m going to start coming to this church.”
Sarah Graham earned her bachelor's degree from Azusa Pacific University and a Master's in Leadership and Business Management from California Baptist University. She currently serves CSBC as the Director of Communications. Sarah is a mother of two grown children, Kirsten (25) and Daniel (21) and she serves as a member of the worship team at Clovis Hills Community Church.
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