California pastor turns sanctuary into hotel for wildfire evacuees

By Send Network

The displaced father and his six children played the board game Battleship in the sanctuary next door to Drew Cunningham’s office. They’re one of thousands of Californians who have been evacuated from their homes due to wildfires ravaging the California coast.

“I could hear them playing,” said Cunningham, elder and lead pastor of Santa Cruz Baptist Church in Aptos, California. “I told him that he’s a great dad, and he told me he’s just trying to make this as normal as possible. He takes his kids to the beach during the day to keep their mind off everything.”


It’s hard to ignore the images of flames assaulting homes, taking memories and cherished family heirlooms. The deadly wildfires have burned over 1 million acres and forced many to leave, not knowing if they’ll return to a home or rubble.

But even in this seemingly hopeless situation, God’s Church stands ready to meet needs and change lives where people are suffering.

“My associate pastor texted me at 1:30 Wednesday morning saying a family he knew got evacuated and needed a place to stay, and he let them stay in the sanctuary for the night. ‘I hope that’s okay,’ he said. I said, ‘Of course!’” explained Cunningham.

Meeting the needs of one family opened the door for Santa Cruz Baptist Church — a church plant — to meet the physical and emotional needs of men, women and children who have been temporarily displaced.

Tents set up at Santa Cruz Baptist Church for wildfire evacuees.

“We’ve also been able to counsel a lot of people by talking with them and praying for them. One guy staying in our Sunday School room has been asking for prayer multiple times. He tears up because no one has ever prayed for him. I’ve had great opportunity to share the gospel multiple times over the last four of five days with him and others,” said Cunningham.


In this season, Santa Cruz Baptist Church has served as a hospital for invisible and intangible wounds, providing spiritual and emotional healing during a traumatic time, and as a hotel, providing a temporary home and place of refuge. Although California is known for wildfires, the area the church is in hasn’t had any for more than 100 years, so residents were ill-prepared.

“We hit the ground running. Our administrative assistant (turned volunteer coordinator), Renee, was fantastic and started contacting people and sharing we were available to host evacuees,” Cunningham said. “We started setting up our Sunday School rooms to look like hotel rooms. We called many church members who provided blow-up mattresses, sheets, pillows and games (since we knew there would be a lot of families). We provide breakfast and dinner and many local restaurants have provided meals and food as well.”


Beds set up in a Sunday School room at Santa Cruz Baptist Church.

They have done their best to make their church look and feel welcoming.

“We got tents and started setting up beds in them. There was only one shower, so several of our members who are more construction-oriented built two plywood stalls in the parking lot, installing “go showers” made by a local surf company. A portable shower company built two more showers in our backlot,” Cunningham said.


Plywood showers stand ready to serve evacuees in the church’s parking lot.

The church is currently housing 38 people, and if weather permits, they hope to set up more tents outside. In addition, they’ve been meeting outside corporately for Sunday worship services.


“Last Sunday, we had our service outside, and we had a lot of people who had never been to church before in their life come to the service. We pivoted from teaching Colossians, and I preached the gospel from Ephesians 2:1-10. I was able to lay out the gospel and call people to come to Jesus,” said Cunningham.

Cunningham made it clear to their visitors the gospel is what compels them to live open-handed with all they have. God sent his only Son here and gave everything for us and in moments like these — and every moment, in a real way — we get to give everything we have for our community, in the name of Jesus.

“At the end in Ephesians 2:10, I challenged our people that the gospel application is that we do good works; it’s not good works that save us, but it spurs us on to good works,” Cunningham recounted. “Some of you have been recipients of this, and this is why we’re doing what we’re doing, and this is what we get to do in response to the gospel.”

Sometimes we go on a mission trip, and other times the mission trip comes to us — either way, we must be ready to share the hope of the gospel and meet needs as we go, wherever we have opportunity.

READ MORE >> Discover how your church can join church plants like Santa Cruz Baptist Church, and other churches across North America and the world, in compassion ministry through Send Relief.

Published August 27, 2020

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