Orthodox Network Poised to Help California Fire Victims

Baltimore, MD (October 30, 2003) — An emergency response network of Orthodox Christians is mobilizing to help victims of the wildfires raging in Southern California.

The network, organized by the U.S. Program of International Orthodox Christian Charities (IOCC), will help people who have lost property as a result of the fires. “We are looking to respond with monetary assistance to the victims, as we determine what the victim count is and what the needs are,” said Fr. David Kossey, national coordinator of the network.

An appeal for funds to member parishes of the network went out on Thursday, Oct. 30. Fr. Kossey is calling Orthodox priests in the affected areas in California to determine the extent of the property damage among their parishioners.

“It is in our power to help these and other victims directly by providing money for immediate expenses,” Fr. Kossey said. “By working with local Orthodox priests, the network will locate the most vulnerable victims and channel funds and other resources to them quickly.”

At Prophet Elias Greek Orthodox Church in San Bernardino, Calif., five families have suffered the loss of their homes because of the wildfires, said Fr. Theofanis Degaitas, parish priest. “They’ve lost their houses completely,” Fr. Degaitas said. “Others have lost buildings on their property.”

The fire in the San Bernardino area has destroyed an estimated 520 homes, killed four people, forced the evacuation of 80,000 people, and burned an estimated 36,000 acres, according to news accounts.

Among the evacuees is Fr. Alexander Lisenko of St. Nicholas Orthodox Church in San Diego. In Hesperia, near Big Bear, St. George the Great Martyr Orthodox Church finds itself at a different kind of Ground Zero as residents are evacuated and a fire command station is set up.

Fr. Demetrios Tsigas, pastor of St. Gregory of Nyssa Greek Orthodox Church in El Cajon, Calif., has agreed to coordinate IOCC’s response on the local level. This is the fourth time in 2003 that the Orthodox network has been activated.

IOCC is establishing the national network to give Orthodox parishes and priests a shared mechanism for responding to disasters. Each of the 25 priests in the network will serve as regional coordinators for Orthodox emergency response.

So far, 20 priests have been trained to be regional coordinators. The priests are trained at Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Va., in cooperation with Church World Service.

“We have been able to assemble the majority of our clergy team,” said Robert Pianka, IOCC’s U.S. Program director. “Our next step will be to build teams of qualified lay volunteers who can assist each clergyman.”

“What Orthodoxy can do is, it can bring to disasters a canny and adept response at whatever scale we’re able to afford,” Fr. Kossey said. “We are working for a practical network to get practical things done for vulnerable families in the first days and weeks of a disaster.”

Anyone interested in getting involved with the emergency response network can call IOCC toll-free at 1-877-803-4622. Contributions may be sent to: IOCC/U.S. Program, P.O. Box 630225, Baltimore, MD 21263-0225. Please indicate “California Fire Aid” on the outside of the envelope and on the note line of your check.