Pastor Charles Holm-Roesler
KUT News: This is March 6, 2012, with the Central Texas Wildfire World History Project and with me today is Reverend Charles Holm-Roesler.
Reverend Holm-Roesler: Hi.
KUT News: Hi.
Rev. Holm-Roesler: It’s a privilege for me to be here.
KUT News: Thank you for coming in and please tell us about your work in Bastrop or your church.
Rev. Holm-Roesler: I’m the pastor of Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Bastrop, an ELCA congregation. It’s a small congregation. We average probably 55 or 60 people in worship on any given Sunday and I’ve been serving as pastor there since February of 2000. So it’s been quite a while.
KUT News: I see. So tell us about and can you tell me your name? I’m…
Rev. Holm-Roesler: I’m Charles Holm-Roesler, the pastor of Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Bastrop.
KUT News: Okay, thank you. And can you give me the first – we are just here recording your story from beginning to end as far as experience of having gone through this terrible thing. So can you tell me the first moment that you were aware of the fires?
Rev. Holm-Roesler: Certainly. I remember September fourth and fifth and sixth very well. We had had church that morning. I had some responsibilities that afternoon at the church so stayed after worship and had intended to drive to Houston to rendezvous with family members there and then got a phone call from them that at the last minute that was not going to work, so I was leaving Bastrop at about 3:30 that afternoon to come back to my home in Austin and it was a beautiful day, but very very windy.
My little Toyota Corolla was kind of getting blown around on the road and I noticed that. I had the radio on. Didn’t hear anything, didn’t see any smoke or any of that kind of thing when I left Bastrop at 3:30. I got home at about 20 minutes or so after four and when I came in the house, I got a drink and sat down and turned on the Channel 8 news and by then there was already a report that there was a wildfire in Bastrop and it wasn’t long after that that I began to get some telephone conversations – into some telephone conversations with folks who had evacuated their homes and were staying at the church, members of the congregation.
And I asked them, “Do I need to come? Is everybody okay? What do you know?” that sort of thing and they said, “Well, no, we’re probably just going to be here for a little while,” you know, that sort of thing and as the evening progressed the news got worse and worse, and even though Monday is my regular day off, by about 7:30 or 8:00 on Monday morning, I was back in Bastrop and quickly was able to find out by making some phone calls to other pastors in the Ministerial Alliance that the Ministerial Alliance was in the process of establishing an office in the Convention Center, which became the command center for the whole effort to coordinate information and share between various government and private agencies that were working to fight the fires. And, the Ministerial Alliance, there were already, by the time I got there, about 8:30 or so, there were already lots of news trucks around, lots of news personnel, the place was filling up with people and we had a room for the Ministerial Alliance.
By that time, County Judge Ronnie McDonald had already asked the president of the Ministerial Alliance, Pastor Bernie Jackson, if she thought that the Ministerial Alliance would handle the reception of both gifts in kind, that’s material gifts of whatever description they might be and money that was already beginning to come in and they didn’t have a place to put it. So, there was a quick meeting, actually before I ever got there, with the board of the Ministerial Alliance. The made the decision that yes, they would honor that request from Judge McDonald and that began a journey for everybody in the Ministerial Alliance that continues to this day.
I mean, it’s an amazing thing where the government and the religious community cooperated for the benefit of the whole community and the Ministerial Alliance, under Bernie Jackson’s leadership and the board, has done what I think is just a phenomenal job of keeping track of that money, making sure that it’s going to places where it needs to go. And the Ministerial Alliance made the decision very early on that the money would go – every bit of it would go directly to people who were victims of the fire. So, even though there were costs for administration, that came from a different fund.
There were people who donated specifically for administrative costs and every general donation that came in through the Ministerial Alliance went to – has gone to folks who were victims. Following the mandate of scripture that the pastors in the Ministerial Alliance all agree to, we believe that God calls us to – to help most importantly those who are the least able to help themselves. So the decision was made to help, first of all, those who had absolutely no insurance and secondly those who were underinsured. Estimates vary on the percentage, but that’s roughly half of the people who lost their dwellings.
Now, most of those people who were either uninsured or underinsured were not homeowners, they were renters. If you look across the spectrum of the people who were affected by the wildfires in Bastrop, the financial spectrum of those folks runs the gamut of all the way from very poor to quite wealthy. Of course, the fire was indiscriminate. It burned whatever was there. So, you know, did somebody in a home that was worth half a million dollars and their home burned down, did they lose a lot? Of course, but did somebody in an eight-foot-wide, 30-foot-long mobile home that had a leaky roof and no porch and it burned down, did they lose a lot? Oh, you bet, and there is a way of understanding that that says that the person with no insurance or the person who was underinsured lost more than those who are or were insured at the time.
I have been absolutely astounded by two things that have operated in my perception of this whole thing the whole time. One is the utter devastation and destruction of the fire. Its indiscriminate moves – you drive down some of those streets and you see a house that’s standing and looks in perfectly good order, everything is fine and right next door, there’s a row of six houses or another street, a dozen houses, that are completely gone, absolutely wiped away. In the first days after the fire when you could drive into those – when you could first drive into those neighborhoods, you’d look over and see hulks of things and you could tell that that thing – that charred thing used to be a refrigerator or a stove or a – it was in the garage and it used to be a mechanic’s tool chest and they’re twisted and burned and vehicles. I remember one particular pickup truck that I drove past, a very late model, either Chevrolet or GMC pick up truck, no glass in it, no light bulbs or lenses on the tail light or tail end or the front end and no wheels. The fire had melted the aluminum wheels. The wheels were simply gone, not just the tires, but the wheels.
When you think about the intensity of that heat and the utter destruction that came, it’s – and it was so fast. It was just amazing to look at that. The other thing that amazes me is to think about the incredible response from not only across this, you know, the county in Bastrop, came together in ways that were just inspiring, but also all across the state and even all across the nation, I mean, people were there from everywhere and truckloads and trailer loads and car loads of all kinds of stuff began to pour in. We, the Ministerial Alliance, realized on Monday that a new account, a new bank account, would have to be opened because too much money was coming in. We couldn’t handle it. The Ministerial Alliance couldn’t handle it in the way the Ministerial Alliance has always functioned.
I mean, never before had Judge Ronnie McDonald or any of the county and city leaders been confronted with anything like that in Bastrop and not just that, but the Ministerial Alliance, had never been confronted with anything like that either. So, everybody was working very hard to prepare, invent, design, processes, ways of handling things that were responsible and responsive. Among the Ministerial Alliance, one of the things that we did, because we naturally rely on prayer, is every morning, at that office, in the Convention Center, we began to say prayer and we decided one time a day wasn’t enough. So, we stopped in the morning and in the afternoon and everybody who was in that room was asked to stop what they were doing.
People from the hallway would come in. We would gather in a circle, we would hold hands and we would pray for guidance and we would pray for safety for those who had come from all sorts of places with all kinds of equipment to fight the fires. I remember early Monday afternoon at the Convention Center, I was walking across the big open room there where lots of people were gathering and there was this big map up on the wall that showed what they were thinking was the current outline of the fire and the projected direction that it was going according to the wind because the wind was still high and as I was walking to where they had ice chests filled with bottled water and other things, a firefighter who was obviously a person in charge, went over toward the map and other firefighters from various places began to gather to listen to his most recent briefing.
As he’s talking, I look to my right and there’s this gentleman who looks like he’s right out of a movie set. He’s got – he’s probably 6’3” or so and he’s got these broad shoulders and you can tell he’s muscular and all this stuff and he’s got a fireman’s uniform on and on his breast pocket is a thing that says something about Alabama. The fire was less than 24 hours old. I looked at him and I whispered, “You’re here all the way from Alabama?” “Oh, yeah and not just me. We have whole crew and trucks.” I said, “I can’t go to the bathroom that fast, how did you get all of those people here and the trucks and everything?” He said, “We’ve been ready. When we first heard how bad this was and how the wind was blowing, we knew you needed us. We loaded up right then and we came.” The guy on the other side of me says, “Oh, yeah. That’s why we’re here.” And on his breast pocket is Oklahoma. I was just blown away by that and that kind of thing happened everyday over and over. Just amazing stuff.
KUT News: Tell me about the Ministerial Alliance. Who’s in it?
Rev. Holm-Roesler: There are – I don’ t know the exact number, but approximately 20 pastors and congregations who are members of the Ministerial Alliance. There are a lot more churches than that in the Bastrop community, both in town and out in the country. Some of the churches are very small. There are a couple or three, maybe more, congregations that are – that meet in people’s homes. So it’s maybe 12 or 15 people and there are some where there are hundreds in attendance very Sunday.
KUT News: It was set up a long time ago.
Rev. Holm-Roesler: The Ministerial Alliance, as a group, has been in existence for decades. I’m not sure exactly how long, but I would guess at least 40 or 50 years, maybe longer than that. Recently, within the last couple of years, the Ministerial Alliance has felt the need to become more organized. Before that, it was not a 501(c)3. We actually received our 501c3 designation during the fire stuff. We didn’t quite have it yet and there were people who were saying, “Hey, we’re not going to give unless it’s tax deductible, but if it’s tax deductible, we’ve got a chunk that we’ll give you.” Well, fortunately for us, there were some folks form our state who knew the right people to call to expedite that who were there and got that expedited. It had been sitting on a desk for a while. Those things happen and fortunately, it got done and so we have a constitution.
We have our 501(c)3 designation as a tax exempt organization in the state and at the same time that they did that, they changed the name from the Bastrop Ministerial Alliance to the Bastrop Christian Ministerial Alliance. There is a strong religious conservative community in and around Bastrop and they wanted to make a strong statement about the Christian orientation of the group.
KUT News: So how much money was donated for this particular fire period?
Rev. Holm-Roesler: Well, I’m not an officer in the Ministerial Alliance and I don’t have the exact number, but in the first round of money that was actually given away, it was something in the neighborhood of $650,000, and money has continued to come in. There’s more there now. How much, I don’t know. I do want to say since this is going out over the air, that there were folks who believed that the concerts that happened that helped raise money to benefit people in Bastrop that that money was going to funnel through the Ministerial Alliance. That was originally talked about, but to my knowledge, that has not happened at all.
None of the money from those big fundraising events has come through. It’s been individual donations from families, from churches, from civic organizations, from companies. Companies sometimes made donations of $10,000 or $12,000 at a pop and even more. We had people walk into the office that was there and bring amazing amounts of cash money and, you know, which kind of frightened us because here we are and people are walking in and giving us a check, cash and, I mean, hundreds of dollars, even thousands of dollars, particularly in the from of a check and so it’s important that everybody know that that money from those big fundraising events – I suspect it’s going to Bastrop, but I don’t know how. I don’t mean to say anything negative at all about those folks who raised money in that way. It’s a great wonderful thing, but it’s not coming through the Ministerial Alliance.
KUT News: So the first day you heard about it, you were – you were watching Channel 8…
Rev. Holm-Roesler: Mm-hm.
KUT News: And it was the fourth, Sunday?
Rev. Holm-Roesler: It was September 4, yes. It was Labor Day weekend.
KUT News: And then on the fifth, you went to the Convention Center?
Rev. Holm-Roesler: That’s correct. That’s correct.
KUT News: How many people were there already by the time you got there?
Rev. Holm-Roesler: I would say and this is totally a guess-timation, I would say there were at least 250 or 300 people there.
KUT News: And these were people who were – who were misplaced – who had lost their homes or were there to help or both?
Rev. Holm-Roesler: It was both. There were – there were – there was a presence of the Bastrop Police Department, the county Sheriff’s Department, city government, county government, Ministerial Alliance. There were already some state government people who were on site that day. There were also people who were coming there because word had gotten around that that was the central place and they had lost their homes, they couldn’t get back in. There was lots of anxiety. “They won’t let me go back in and we weren’t at home. We were going to be gone for a couple of hours and we left our pets and want to go back and save our pets,” and, of course, by that time, roads were blocked off and police officers and firefighters were saying, “You can’t go in. It’s much too dangerous.” You know, trees were falling across roads and it was just a perilous situation. So there was lost of anxiety. You know, “I know my house burned down. I saw it catch fire just as we were leaving and we have no place to go. What are we going to do? We have no clothing.” One thing after another was going on.
KUT News: So what did these folks do?
Rev. Holm-Roesler: Well, there was an information area set up in the foyer of the Convention Center. That’s where press conferences happened. Like when the Governor came and other press conferences, too. They all happened in that same area and there were lots of cameras and microphones there of course and there was a lot of public – a lot of the public was gathered there. On the portico outside, they posted information on the walls that they would change. They – I don’t remember if it began on Monday, but they began to put maybe on Tuesday or Wednesday, they began to put up lists of addresses that they knew houses had burned so that people would be informed as quickly as they could so they could begin to do whatever it is that they needed to do. Shelters began to appear, some at churches.
The biggest one was at one of the schools, the middle school in Bastrop and so all sorts of resources got directed to coordinating that. I think it was either in the Tuesday or Wednesday that the Red Cross got there. They weren’t there right away, but they got there pretty quickly and one of the difficult spots in coordinating all of the various efforts was that the Red Cross has particular procedures that they have to follow and then there were community folks who were there and it was hard for folks to understand who was in charge.
I heard stories that the Red Cross would say, “You have to do it this way,” and by that time, somebody in city or county government said, “You can’t do it that way, but the Red Cross says you have to do it this way,” and vice versa. It got all kind of crazy. However, even with all of that, there was an overall effort of this is an amazing intense time and for this to somehow work and take care of people, we have to figure out a way to cooperate. Overall, that happened.
KUT News: What was your goal in all this?
Rev. Holm-Roesler: I, like most of the folks in the Ministerial Alliance, we sort of went where we went and did what we did at the spur of the moment at times. One of the things that we did was we were in that room. We got set up with some telephones, me and a couple of other pastors, called people that we thought might be able to come in and give some volunteer time answering phones and processing donations and that kind of stuff and so that kind of thing. I did a little of that. I answered the phone a few times.
I met people as they came in the door and talked with them if they wanted to talk about making a donation or something like that. At one point, I used my pick up truck and somebody else from my congregation borrowed a pick up truck and we went to a place that had been evacuated where a woman had a clothing kind of an outlet thing that she goes to, you know, community sales kinds of things and sets up a little booth to sell t-shirts and all sorts of stuff and she – they said they were in the path of the fire because the wind had changed. This was, I think, in Wednesday. And so we drove over there and picked up two great big pick up loads of this stuff to be donated because they didn’t want it to just go up in smoke and we took it to the place that was receiving donations.
One day I went to the shelter at the middle school and worked there for about three hours or so, four maybe, visited with several families, some folks who were in tears because of the life changing impact of what they had been through and, you know, people were wondering all sorts of things. “If God loves us, how can this happen? If God loves us, why is God punishing us this way? What has Bastrop done that is so horrible that God is condemning Bastrop?” Those kinds of questions on a community scale and an individual scale. “Why did my house burn and my neighbor’s didn’t?” or “Why did my house not burn and my neighbor’s did?” It was – there was that survivor guilt that is sometimes talked about that was there all over the place and sometimes talking with, in particular, the local folks who were giving care was a way for the Ministerial Alliance to respond, not just me, but other pastors too, to be there.
By the time Wednesday was coming to a close, I realized that I needed to be back at my church office because I was finding out then that first one, then two, then three people in the congregation I serve had lost their homes and by the time it was over, we had six families in our congregation that had lost their homes. Only two of those with children at home, the others are older couples. You know, their children are away from home. So the impact my congregation was pretty strong. There’s a story I want to tell that happened on Monday. I walked out to – actually I was on my way to go to the bathroom and I had my police chaplain’s hat on and my police chaplain’s shirt. There are a number of us pastors who volunteer with the Bastrop Police Department as chaplains and our primary duty there is to try to get to know the officers and to care for the officers and their families, but also we respond with the officers to do things like death notification and that sort of thing. So I wore that clothing while I was there so it would be easy for people to identify me as a chaplain.
I had my name badge on and all that. This fellow walks up to me at the Convention Center and he has this – I realized when I was telling this story once before how ironic my words were, but he had this ashen look on his face. He was kind of gray and he – his eyes were wide and he looked absolutely frazzled and he saw my clothing and realized that my role was to be a chaplain. And he said, “I can’t believe what happened.” And I said, “What happened.”
And he said, “We were all sitting in the house, my wife and our two kids. It was Sunday afternoon. My wife and I were watching the game.” I have no idea what game he was watching and he said, “And she got up and went in the kitchen to get us a snack and the wind was blowing and all of that stuff but the kids were in the back of the house. They, you know, had their earphones on or were messing with the computer,” whatever it was they were doing and he said, “All of a sudden there’s this fierce pounding on the door and this frantic voice of a man outside saying ‘The fire’s right behind your house, get out now,’ and he said, “I got up and ran to the door and opened it and as I was at the door, this firefighter was running away from the porch back to his truck and he turns around and he says, ‘Get out now. The fire is right behind your house.’ “
The man told me, “I stepped off my porch and looked around the corner and I could se the flames and they were as tall as the trees, even taller and they were coming.” And he said, “I ran back in the house and I yelled at my family, “Get out now. The forest is on fire right behind our house. We ran, got in the car and as we drove out the driveway, our house went up in flames.”
KUT News: And he was…
Rev. Holm-Roesler: And he and his family were safe. We talked a little longer. I can’t really remember what else we talked about to be honest. I heard over the course of the next weeks, I heard a number of stories that were very similar to that. If it had not been for local law enforcement people, local firefighters and simply neighbors helping out neighbors, we would have had a lot more loss of life than what we had. What we had was tragic enough and the loss of property was monumental, but I am so grateful that it was a holiday weekend and there were lots of people out visiting, you know, doing that – that play time thing that people do on holiday weekends when there’s a Monday. That helped a lot. On the other hand, there were people who were in Austin or Dallas or Houston or San Antonio with relatives or friends and they had nothing to come back home to. They were just grateful that they were alive. Later in the week, I guess it was on Tuesday, the man – this man saw…
KUT News: Let me just stop you one second.
Rev. Holm-Roesler: Sure.
KUT News: I think they need the booth. We’ll move to another booth.
Rev. Holm-Roesler: Oh. Okay.
KUT News: Alright. Welcome Pastor Charles Holm-Roesler back.
Rev. Holm-Roesler: Thank you.
KUT News: To part two. This is April 23, 2012, Wildfires Oral History Project. So let’s get started. You were telling about – in our last session, about the stories you were hearing from the folks who were at the – was it the Convention Center?
Rev. Holm-Roesler: Mm-hm. Yes.
KUT News: Where the Ministerial – can you speak a little bit about that?
Rev. Holm-Roesler: The – well, yes. The Convention Center was the staging area for all of the various agencies that were doing anything to manage equipment, personnel and respond to the wildfires. One of those groups that was there that I happen to be a part of is the Bastrop Christian Ministerial Alliance and the man who was county judge, Judge Ronnie McDonald, who had basic oversight responsibility for pretty much everything that was going on asked the Ministerial Alliance if the Alliance would be responsible for processing receiving both gifts in kind, that is stuff, things and money and initially the Ministerial Alliance said yes and ended up not so much coordinating the stuff as time went on but did manage the money.
One of the things and I did remember this just a second ago, one of the things that I wanted to talk about is the amazing response that came from that came from so many people in so many places to this disaster and one of the things that I’ve learned in walking through this disaster with the community and with some of the individuals in it is that this kind of astounding response is something that is seen in lots of communities where there are disasters, fires, tornadoes, hurricanes, that sort of thing.
People love people and respond to genuine and immediate need with great generosity. It is a marvelous and wonderful thing to see. The initial response in the first several months after the fire, in terms just of money, was that the Bastrop Christian Ministerial Alliance received something like $650,000. That money was put into a separate fund, administered by a group that was put together who was primarily the executive committee or executive board of the Ministerial Alliance and then in November, after a long application process and all sorts of things and lots of hours of lots of work by a few paid individuals, but primarily volunteers, all that stuff was processed and that $650,000.00 was disbursed to – according to the best work that the Ministerial Alliance was able to do, to the folks who had the greatest need, those who either had no insurance or they were underinsured and some of the estimates say that that was roughly 50% of the people who lost their housing.
The Ministerial Alliance came quickly to say – to use the term “lost their housing” not “lost their home” because a home seemed to indicate homeownership and in a way, it didn’t matter whether somebody owned their home or were – or they were renting a home. If their house burned up and all of their possession were gone, they were homeless. It – who technically owned that property in that moment didn’t matter. It was, “Where are we going to go? How are we going to get there? Who’s going to help us? What do we need?” So many questions like that were explored by so many people.
There were folks – I personally met firefighters from Alaska and Florida, from Oklahoma, Minnesota, Kansas, Alabama, Louisiana and several other states and there were – there were people who came from all over the wonderful State of Texas bringing truck loads and I mean tractor trailer truck loads and also cars, compact cars, packed with no room for anybody but the driver and maybe a passenger, that drove for several hours just to get to Bastrop to bring stuff that they believed people might need, water, food, non-perishable food of lots of varieties, clothing, bedding.
There was furniture arriving within the first week of the fire. Now that was a little crazy because if somebody’s house burned up, they don’t have a place to put a dining table and six dining chairs, but stuff like that started to arrive and so very quickly the community was overwhelmed by so much stuff, so much giving. The church that I’m pastor of, like lots of churches in the Bastrop area, had the same kind of experience. We – it just so happens that in 2012, our congregation built a new building. Well part of that is unfinished. It’s a large fellowship hall/family life center area and as things started to come in to our church, we designated that place that that was going to be a free store and it happened that the stuff that we received was not so much furniture. We got some of that, but most of it was personal hygiene items, clothing, items for babies, all sorts of things.
There were work gloves and cleaning solutions of all kinds. One of the things that hasn’t been talked about perhaps as much is there were a number of homes that were close to the fire, close to having been burned, they weren’t burned, but they received lots of smoke damage. Some were even partially burned and then did not burn, for a couple of different reasons. Probably one is maybe a helicopter drop of a firefighting solution or water and that sort of thing. But those homes had to be cleaned up before people could move back in. That entire fellowship hall of ours and very quickly, within just three or four weeks, became filled to over capacity. I mean, we had more stuff than we knew what to do with. We were turning people away.
Part of how that happened is and a little story to illustrate the amazing gifting that Bastrop received was one Sunday, after church, this was in, I think, in early October, I was the last one to be leaving the church that day. That doesn’t always happen, but that day it was. I checked all the doors, locked everything, I’m locking the front door and I turn around and there’s this truck, like a big U-haul truck, but it’s unmarked. This woman rolls down the passenger window and she could see I was the pastor. I was wearing my clerical collar and she sort of leans out the window and she says, “Pastor, we have a truck load of stuff and nobody else will take it. Will you take it?”
So I walked up to the truck and we talked and she explained further that they had come from Houston. They had already been to four other sites where people had been receiving things and each of those other four sites said we have so much stuff we can’t take anymore. And she said, “We came all the way from Houston and, you know, if we go back with a truck load of stuff, the people who gave this are going to be upset with us. They’re going to consider this trip a failure.” And I said, “Okay, sure. We’ll take it.” So I told them about where to drive and I began to help them and we – as we were unloading the truck I said, “Well, are you from a school or a church or a civic group?” and she said, “No, we’re from a car dealership in Houston.” These were employees of a car dealership.
Now, I don’t mean to be judgmental, although I know I am. I try to fight against that, but I have this unsavory internal attitude about car dealers and if any car dealers are hearing me say this, I apologize because I know you’re not all a bunch of thieves, but that’s kind of how I think of people who work in car dealerships. And I just was flabbergasted that a group of employees at a car dealership in Houston– I mean, I grew up in Houston. It’s every person for themselves. “Get out of my way before I knock you down because I want what’s over on the other side of you,” and you know, they came all that way. They did all that stuff. It was just astounding.
Another very brief story that was like that, I got a call one day in the church office from a woman who identified herself as the chair of the Austin Taxi Driver’s Association. I live in Austin. I didn’t even know there was a Taxi Driver’s Association. I think I’m pretty aware of what goes on but, you know, and she said, “We’ve collected money from the taxi drivers. We’d like to bring it to you.” And I went, “Okay.” So we arranged a time. Some days later she and four other taxi drivers came to my office and they presented us with a check for over $800 from taxi drivers. And, you know, taxi drivers are not wealthy people. They work hard. They have odd hours and they have to put up with people like me in the backseat of their car.
God bless them all and here they were driving all the way from Austin to Bastrop to hand deliver the check because it was important for them to give. Of the four taxi drivers who were there, one was – the woman who called originally I think was from North Carolina. Two had been born in Africa and one in, if I’m remembering correctly, one of the countries that was originally part of the old Soviet Union that was split off. I mean, the response and the caring was just amazing and it was in many different moments overwhelming. People who had huge needs were unable to receive.
One of the most astounding things I’ve learned in this – in this whole experience is that we have a very hard time receiving. It’s much easier for us to give than it is to receive. I think that our whole society and lots of the components of our society are responsible for having trained us. I really believe it’s a societal thing. We’ve been trained that to receive is wrong. It’s improper. I think the church has – bears some responsibility for that as well and by that I mean large letter “C” Church, all denominations. And I suspect that may be true in religions other than Christianity, although I don’t know that. My experience is Christian.
The interesting thing is like in our little free store that we had in our fellowship hall, I remember I was kind of assisting one woman trying to find some things and she walked up to this place where there was a stack of jackets on the table and she picks up this jacket and, you know, this is in the fall of year, the weather is starting to turn a little cooler and just a couple of minutes before, this woman has told me, “We lost everything. Our home is gone.” So she picks up this jacket and goes, “Oh, this is nice,” and she looks at the size and she says, “It’s just my size,” and she kind of mumbles to herself, “I could really use this,” and she very carefully folded it back up and laid it back down and walked away. And I said, “Pardon me, but I don’t understand what happened. If you – you just said you needed that jacket and it would fit you and you liked the way it looked and then you folded it back up and put it down,” and she said, “But there’s probably somebody else who needs it more than me.”
So I went back to the jacket, picked it up, brought it back to her and said, “This is your jacket. I don’t know who gave it, but somebody gave this jacket for you and it’s important for that person that you take this jacket because when you take this jacket, you tell that person ‘thank you’ and you give that person the opportunity to give. If you don’t take the jacket, you take the opportunity of giving away.” With that, she was able to take the jacket still with some reluctance. I found that kind of experience happening over and over and I find it still happens with people who have lost everything in the fires. Somehow, we have a deficit, I think, within our ability to live in the human community about how to receive from each other.
We seem suspicious, we seem – we seem to want to want to do it all on our own. We live with the story that we’ve created that it’s somehow wrong, it’s overly dependent to receive when you genuinely need it. What’s out of balance about that is there was a transition from people who genuinely had needs, those who had actually lost everything in the fire, began to quit coming to our free store even though the word had gotten around at about Thanksgiving time and what happened after that or maybe just before that, until we closed it in mid-December, is that we started to have people come who we realized were having perpetual garage sales and they didn’t have the needs for which those items were originally given. So there’s something about taking in a kind of a twisted way that seems to be okay with some folks in our society, but that’s different than receiving when there’s a genuine need.
The people who were – who were not wanting to receive even in their need were also very giving. Like this woman with the jacket said there’s probably somebody that needs it more than me. Amazing to watch the dynamics of people, how they interact, what becomes important and what’s not important and how we live out our lives by those things that we believe deep in our core.
KUT News: How is your congregation doing now?
Rev. Holm-Roesler: Thank you for asking. The congregation has been – has been affected. Our attendance has been lower, our offering has been lower partially because we don’t have as many people coming. There are probably – well, I’m convinced there are some reasons other than the fire, but the fire has had an impact on us. For example, one of the couples who lost their home longer lives in Bastrop. They’ve chosen not to rebuild. They bought in a home in, I think, the Cedar Park area and the woman and the couple still comes, but instead of basically every Sunday, it’s about once a month. So those kinds of things have impacted us.
We’ve got other families who are working to just get their feet back on the ground. There’s one couple who they’re still working on their place. They’ve chosen – they’re going to rebuild. They’re living in a different place for right now and they’re going to rebuild but they haven’t done that and there are a thousand, million things that they need to do in order to prepare for that. They don’t have a lot of money. They did have insurance, but they’re home was modest and their insurance was apparently modest and so they have a – they have some real restrictions, you know, in terms of finances in order to rebuild. So they’re at their place or they’re resting up because they’re working – he’s working 60-65 hours a week every week and she’s working at least that much. He has – he just has one job, but she’s got three and they’re very hardworking, good-hearted people, but they can’t get to church as much as they would like to. So those kinds of things have impacted us.
KUT News: Are they living on their place?
Rev. Holm-Roesler: No, they’re not living on their place. They’re – a friend, a close friend who knows them, is allowing them to live in a home that is in the Bastrop area, but a little bit further away and so they’re okay. They’re safe and they’re housed and all of that, but it’s – there’s so much to do and, you know, they’re only those two people and so it’s hard to work it all in. And the congregation was like every, I think, every church in Bastrop, was thrown off kilter by the fire really from September through at least December of January.
Our primary focus was just to kind of keep the doors open doing the bare minimum stuff that we needed to do for Sunday and other meeting times and other ministry things and try to deal with stuff that had to do with the fire. There were official things that the congregation, you know, did. But, there were also lots of unofficial stuff. We’ve had – people in the congregation have been incredibly generous with their time, with their homes, with preparing meals for people, with having guests stay in their home sometimes for weeks on end and that sort of thing, really going out of their way to be helpful to others.
So, those kinds of things can’t help but siphon away some of the energy that would typically go into the maintaining of your standard brand, week-to-week ministry in a congregation, plus it distracts the focus of the pastor and the other leaders in the congregation and I’m sure that that kind of thing happened in other congregations as well. And, the folks who have been in leadership positions in the Ministerial Alliance have born a huge, huge responsibility. Nobody ever expected that we would be hit by something like that. You know, in Texas, hurricanes happen along the coast and tornadoes happen, you know, in central – in the hill country and in West Texas. You know, it’s not going to happen to us.
We’re all acting like a teenager with a new driver’s license. I mean, just not being aware. So, there are some things that have happened in the community and in the congregation that have said, you know, we need to be ready. One of the things we did before our free store was closed was folks went through lots of stuff and picked out some of the best clothes – a variety of clothing for men, women and children, boxed it up, labeled it and we have it in storage so what when there is a disaster that flares up some place, if it’s within what we would consider a reasonable distance for us to respond, we’re going to go try to do that. We have not yet created any kind of disaster response team within the congregation, but we have a very small congregation and so there’s kind of this sense that if a disaster occurs and there – we feel there’s a need to go do that and it’s – we probably won’t go to Alaska, but might go to San Antonio or Corpus Christie or some place like that.
So that’s at least in the back of our mind and we have made some preparation for that kind of thing and so it’s shifted our focus a little bit. I think people have become more thankful for the human community we live in in general and the Christian community specifically. You know, people – sometimes church people begin to live with blinders on and they think somehow church people are better than other people and church people are more caring than other people and all that other stuff. We’ve learned that that’s not necessarily the case, although I would like to see church people be more caring that other people, I don’t always find that and the response of so many folks – I mean, we had – most of the stuff that came to our free store was from other churches, primarily Lutheran churches, but that’s because that’s people we know. But we had people like this automobile dealership in Houston who came, Austin Taxi Drivers Association.
We had people who were business people, individuals, who just heard that we were collecting stuff. Some of them we don’t know where. We got a check from somebody in Colorado, for Pete’s sake. Now, how did they know to send a check to a little tiny Lutheran Church in Bastrop? I don’t know. Maybe they got on the internet. I’m not sure how they found out who we were and how to get that check there, but it came in the mail and it was addressed correctly and all of that stuff and, you know, we’re grateful for all of that response. It’s just been – it’s just been astounding.
KUT News: So you mentioned several of your members, one moved to Cedar Park, one is waiting to rebuild.
Rev. Holm-Roesler: Mm-hm.
KUT News: Any others who lost their homes or their housing?
Rev. Holm-Roesler: Yes. Well, yes. There were six. One was a young couple living in a mobile home on the back part of mom and dad’s place. The mobile home burned and so did mom and dad’s home. Mom and dad are still in the process of working to rebuild. The mobile home has – they’ve purchased a used, actually a much nicer mobile home, than the one that was originally there and the younger couple is living in that. So that’s another one and others are in – well, one family decided to stay in the Bastrop community because dad in that family, husband, has a job – a good dependable job and all that kind of thing and mom has some – some special needs and so they wanted to stay there where their support system was. They simply purchased another home. They’re not sure what’s going to happen with the old property. Right now, it sits vacant. The slab has been cleaned up, but its – having seen that home before, it still tugs at my heart when I drive by there and see that. The other couple of folks are rebuilding. One is getting fairly close, I think, at this point in April probably 30 days or so away from being able to move in. Another one is in conversation with contractors…
KUT News: All I have to do is press the button and it comes right back on. It’s in rest mode, the monitor.
Rev. Holm-Roesler: Oh, okay. Was it still recording then?
KUT News: Yeah, it’s still recording.
Rev. Holm-Roesler: Oh, okay. Sorry.
KUT News: Yeah.
Rev. Holm-Roesler: I – okay, anyway, so they – they are all moving, but movement has been in fits and starts and it’s difficult. One of the women whose – her and her husband are renting a place in Hutto and she was telling me that she was – and this was couple or three months ago, she was going to cook something. Always in the past when she cooked whatever it was she was going to cook, she would use this particular pan and she went, “Oh,” in her mind, she thought, “Well, I’ll get my,” whatever it is, “pan,” and then she realized that pan doesn’t exist anymore. And so as people move through the normal day-to-day living, they realize things that they do not have that they once upon a time had. A couple of the women have told me stories about being in a store and they would see a dish or a figurine on a shelf and it would remind them of something that their mom or grandmother had given them that was more of a keepsake for them.
It was more valuable emotionally to them than any kind of monetary value and that item is gone and even if they would buy a new one that looked something like it or even exactly like it, it wouldn’t be that item. So, the grief that folks are dealing with is coming in increments very much like the grief that happens when a person dies. One of the differences, though, is that this grief is systemic because the whole system of how people interact and where people live and what the community looks like has been affected in Bastrop. Some of the folks, you know, their home didn’t burn, but every home to the right of their house burned and every home to the left of their house burned and every home across the street burned.
So, when they go home, they see that and neighbors that they’ve had for 15 or 20 years or six months are not there and perhaps children that their children played with are no longer in the neighborhood. So there’s all sorts of levels of grief, some of it having to do with people, some of it having to do with, “When I leave this house this morning and I drive to work, I can’t drive to work the way I used to drive to work because I don’t live in the same place.” Or maybe, “We were out of town that weekend when the fire happened and the car that I drove is no longer the car that I drive because that car was in the driveway and it got burned up, so we had to buy a new car. So when I get in the new car, I’m thankful I have a car to drive, but I’m concerned about the new payments because my income hasn’t gone up since the fire,” or maybe it’s even gone down.”
So finances get all twisted up in it and its very complex and people are working very hard to sort through all those things, some doing it very much on their own, others finding resources like their pastor or other people, therapists, you know, professional social workers, counselors, but that’s a very, very individual thing. One of the things that’s true is people need the space. Like when a person dies and a family or a friend grieves, people need the space to grieve the way they grieve because everybody grieves in some similar ways, but everybody has their own peculiar way to grieve too and it’s important for folks around them to honor that and to not fight it.
I’ve always believed that one of the worse things that someone can say to somebody who is grieving is, “You should,” or “You need to be doing,” or “You should be here. You should be there.” That’s not necessarily true. I think as long as there is movement, thoughtful movement, about getting on with life then people are probably doing what they need to do. It’s when folks completely shut down and there’s no movement and a kind of a social, emotional paralysis sets in. That’s when grief has become really genuinely problematic. Fortunately, for the people that I’m closest to, I don’t see that.
KUT News: I was about to ask.
Rev. Holm-Roesler: Yeah, I’m very grateful that there is movement and some of it is faster than others and that’s okay because we process those things uniquely. That’s one of the gifts of our humanity, I think, that we’re not all the same and that, you know, one person can speak to another person and help them out. Sometimes the greatest help comes from somebody else who has been in a very, very similar situation, even though they’re – everyone of them is unique. There are also lots of similarities.
KUT News: It strikes me that there’s so much processing that has to go on…
Rev. Holm-Roesler: Mm-hm.
KUT News: And movement at the same time.
Rev. Holm-Roesler: Mm-hm.
KUT News: You know, it’s just – I don’t know if, particularly the – well, those hit by these fires, how long it will take for processing.
Rev. Holm-Roesler: I think some of those folks will be in this processing mode, frankly, for years. My honest – my observation is that already in the community, there is conversation about before the fire and since the fire. I’ve heard those kinds of words and I believe that that’s true not just socially, but it’s true individually. I’ve heard people say, “Well, I used to believe. Now I believe.” It’s those fires, the experience, it’s a defining moment and people are reassessing who they are and what they do, how they process life and what’s really important and what’s not so important. One of the things that has changed for my wife and I is that before the fires, our important papers were in several different places. Since then, we bought one of those little rolling file boxes with an expandable handle and it’s got little wheels on it and all of our primary papers have been put into that box.
The most recent income tax returns, birth certificates, there’s a death certificate of a family member in the box, mortgage papers, insurance information. That sort of thing is all in that box and we’ve made an agreement that if for whatever reason we’re told to evacuate our house, that that box is going to go with us and the reason for that is that so many of the people that were in these fires in Bastrop didn’t have those papers and so to begin the process of talking to insurance people and talking to mortgage companies and all that stuff, proving where you live. I mean, that was – that was crazy. I mean, there were people who left without their wallet or their purse, so they didn’t even have a driver’s license and it got burned up in the fire.
Well, so what, you say you live at 123 Wonderful Drive, and somebody says, “Well, you have to prove that to me. Let me see your driver’s license.” “Well, I don’t have your driver’s license.” “Well, let me see a utility bill.” “Well, the house burned up and all the old utility bills are in the house.” I mean, it’s just, you know, so important to make an evaluation at a time like this and to say, “Is there some kind of meaning in how I approach my everyday life, the decisions I make, the choices that come to me everyday?” Folks are doing that and that’s part of that processing as well. I can tell you that the Ministerial Alliance has been, as a Ministerial Alliance, has been processing that too and has been adjusting some of the things that – in the way that it’s decisions are made and stuff.
KUT News: Where is your church located and how close were you to the fire?
Rev. Holm-Roesler: Excellent question. We are on the access road of Highway 71, just west of the Colorado River where Highway 71 crosses the Colorado River. If folks know where the Wal-Mart is, we’re east of the Wal-Mart about a quarter of a mile, between the First State Bank and the Dairy Queen and everybody knows where the Dairy Queen in Bastrop is. We were about two and a half or three miles from, I think is the correct distance, from the western most part of the fire that was closest to us and that’s – that’s roughly where the – where the Bastrop State Park comes up to Highway 71. At the entrance to Tahitian Village, if people are familiar with that, that’s about the western edge of the fire on Highway 71 and that was the closest place to us. So, in truth, the physical facility of Good Shepherd was never threatened by this fire.
KUT News: How many members do you have in your congregation?
Rev. Holm-Roesler: Well, as I have said, it’s a small congregation. We have been having, in worship this year, somewhere between 30 and 50 people on a Sunday. So it’s a small group.
KUT News: That’s what’s wonderful about Bastrop.
Rev. Holm-Roesler: Well, there are a lot of good things about Bastrop.
KUT News: You know, smaller…
Rev. Holm-Roesler: Yeah. Yeah. It is – it is a much more of a – of a personal-sized congregation. People seem to know everybody and even so, just yesterday, I was talking to somebody who said, “Now is that person a visitor or a member?” and even with a small congregation, we have that – we have that same kind or problem that larger congregations have.
KUT News: It’s – I think it’s hard to be able to do all that grieving and processing when you have to look at what you so articulately expressed of seeing what happened. It’s a reminder it’s always there. It’s going to take forever for those trees to grow back. It’s just overwhelming.
Rev. Holm-Roesler: It is. At the same time, nowadays, with the rains we’ve had recently and with it being springtime, it’s possible to drive around and look at even the spots in the forest that were most devastated by the fire and there are – there are some places where the whole forest floor is already green and there are other places where there are shoots of green coming up here and there, signs of new life and it’s inspiring to see how nature, in my opinion, God’s continual creative activity, is there in people, I mean, in the Earth, in the trees, in the grass. The other side of that is that it’s also there in the people. Houses that were completely destroyed, the space has been cleaned up, the slab taken away and a new house is already built and people are already living in it in some places. So, there is – there’s this amazing movement head of life.
Life doesn’t go backward and life is not static. It’s filled with movement and newness and just like at the – in the early days of recovery, in the earliest days of clean up, all the authorities about fire were telling people, you know, wear gloves, wear goggles, wear some kind of a breathing apparatus when you go in there because there are toxic fumes all over the place. The houses were filled with all sorts of chemicals, glue and plastic and toxic things in pipes for air conditioning units and all sorts of stuff, residue all over the place and now, there’s green and we even an unscientific person like me knows that everywhere there’s a green leaf, photosynthesis is happening and oxygen is being created and new life is coming back and wow, it’s – it’s – it’s wonderful.
I mean, so on the one hand, you have that – those devastated trees that are still standing 50 feet tall and more that are charred and burned and have no limbs and no leaves and right next to them, on the ground, you’ve got, a little bush that’s sprouting up with big, beautiful, bright, dark green leaves that are pointed to the light and seem to express a kind of a hopefulness for a new day. It’s – that sort of stuff is all over the place and I can tell you there a couple of building contractors that I’ve had the privilege to meet and talk to. As far as I know, there’s not a building contractor or a subcontractor in Bastrop who is sitting idle right now.
Everybody seems to be working and so as devastating as this thing has been to the economy on one hand, like what’s the school district going to do now that 1700 homes can no longer be taxed at the same value? Well, homes are being rebuilt and a new tax base is coming out and jobs that were not there in Bastrop in construction are now there in Bastrop and so as – it’s – it’s all part of that huge swirl of stuff that’s cooking and bubbling up, new life and overall what I see is not a sense of despair in this grief process, but a sense of growth and movement and hope and newness of life and it’s – its inspiring and we still, between the time that we talked last month and this time, our congregation has received more donations of cash gifts from people. I mean, and we never solicited anything.
We never asked anybody to give us anything and they’ve done that. Some have even given money directly to the congregation to go in our general fund because they knew that were hard hit by the fire and that’s been a great help to us as a congregation and I know, in talking with other pastors, there were people were associated with those other congregations who did some of the same kind of stuff. We know that your congregation is hurting. Here, use this for your ministry, whatever that is, pay the light bill, you know, whatever and that’s been – that’s been a great help.
KUT News: Pastor Charles, is there anything else you’d like to add?
Rev. Holm-Roesler: Just to say a huge thank you to – to people. So many folks from so many places have done so many good things to help in – in such a huge variety of ways, things I never would have thought of before and I would just say a word of encouragement about that. If you find yourself in some disaster, know that there are people who care and they will come, a lot of them unsolicited and they will – they will do the best that they can. Is every need met? No. Are the needs that are met, met in the most efficient and effective way that they possibly could be? Not always, but I think people are still basically good and they want to love and given the opportunity, especially in a crisis, I think they will.
KUT News: Thank you so much for sharing your story.
Rev. Holm-Roesler: Thank you. It’s my privilege.
KUT News: Could you say your name and the title. We may not have gotten it all at the beginning of this.
Rev. Holm-Roesler: Okay. My name is Charles Holm-Roesler. I am the pastor of Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Bastrop, a congregation of the ELCA.
KUT News: Thank you.