By JEAN PARIETTI, Catholic News Service | Published April 16, 2015
OSO, Wash. (CNS)—When a headline-making catastrophe strikes a community, it often rallies together, bringing together disparate people who previously had little more than geography in common.
Such was the case in Oso and other towns in Washington’s North Fork Stillaguamish Valley, when a devastating mudslide in March 2014 obliterated a neighborhood and claimed the lives of 43 people.
What made this rallying together distinctive is that people of different faiths learned how to put doctrinal differences aside for the common good in a valley that was already struggling and help the people there move toward recovery and healing.
Father Tim Sauer, pastor of Immaculate Conception Parish in Arlington and St. John Vianney Mission in Darrington, said he believes God brought him and the Rev. Jim Jacobson, pastor of Calvary Arlington Church, a congregation in the Calvary Chapel denomination, together.
“We’re here for a reason,” Father Sauer told the Northwest Catholic, the Archdiocese of Seattle’s magazine. “I saw that as one of the great potential strengths of dealing with this whole thing, was the ecumenical movement,” he added. “It’s something I gravitate toward.”
“Not with any malice, I just didn’t really have the best attitude about Catholics,” Rev. Jacobson said. “I just kind of didn’t feel like we were going to have any compatibility or reason to work together on anything, so it just wasn’t on my radar.”
The men say their friendship is just one of many blessings that have come out of the tragedy. Another blessing was the way the community was “flooded” with people experienced in disaster response and recovery, the priest said.
At the peak of the crisis more than 1,000 searchers were involved; the search after the March 22 mudslide ended April 28. Thirteen people survived, and the last victim’s body was found July 22. In all, 49 homes and structures were destroyed and a mile of state highway was made impassable.
Rev. Jacobson and Father Sauer are co-chairs of the valley’s Long-Term Recovery Group, where clergy, social-service agency representatives and others meet weekly to hear from disaster case managers about victims’ unmet needs, distribute donations and plan for the valley’s long-term recovery.
In the first days after the mudslide, Catholics didn’t exactly feel welcomed when church leaders gathered to discuss their response to the disaster. People wouldn’t look her in the eye, said Susan Vaughn, regional chief of operations for Catholic Community Services King County.
“Even saying ‘Catholic Community Services’ seemed to be divisive at the table,” she recalled. Father Sauer was left out of some conversations. People asked the agency’s workers if they were Catholic—and if they weren’t, some considered that a good thing, Vaughn said.
But it didn’t take long to begin breaking down barriers and building trust. “Eventually that all changed just by the work of our hands,” Vaughn said. People began to realize that help from Catholics “wasn’t going to be intrusive or demanding, that we’re not trying to convert everybody,” she noted. They started going out to lunch together and even being friends on Facebook.
The dedication, expertise and compassion of Catholic Community Services’ case managers made an impact. “I became very impressed with how the CCS went about their work with the survivors,” the Rev. Michael G. De Luca, pastor of the First Baptist Church in Darrington, wrote in an email. “One day, five people told me how nice the CCS people were.”
Members of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul conference, or chapter, at Immaculate Conception Parish got involved immediately, doing what they typically do—meeting with those in need and helping pay for things like rent and utility bills, said Jim Kehoe, CEO of the society’s North Sound Council in Everett. Extra support came from the Society of St. Vincent de Paul council in Seattle, other parishes and the Knights of Columbus. And when the Federal Emergency Management Agency set up its resource center in Arlington, “our Vincentians were there every day from opening to closing,” Kehoe said.
United Way of Snohomish County gave $20,000 to St. Vincent de Paul for its “House in a Box” program, which provides new furniture and household goods to people who lost their homes. St. Vincent de Paul isn’t a United Way agency, and hadn’t received any funding from them in the last 15 years, Kehoe said.
Sue Bush, emergency management director for the state Department of Social and Health Services, said the Red Cross did something in the Oso response that it had never done before: “They offered money to Catholic Community Services … and that’s a real coup.”
The Red Cross, United Way and the Cascade Valley Hospital Foundation committed a total of $200,000 to help pay for the CCS disaster case managers, Vaughn said, “setting a precedent.”
Donations to pay funeral costs and support the church’s other local efforts poured in from around the U.S. and beyond—to CCS’ website, the archdiocese’s missions office and directly to Immaculate Conception Parish. The final tally was around $900,000, Father Sauer said.
By the end of 2014, Immaculate Conception had distributed $370,000, including funerals and related expenses for 37 of the victims—some families wanted to pay for funerals themselves. The parish is now paying for grave markers. The rest of the money will help pay for ongoing needs during the recovery, which FEMA officials have said could last two years or more.
While still meeting the physical needs of those affected by the slide—new issues arise weekly—the Long-Term Recovery Group is now focusing on ways to meet the communities’ mental health needs. “There’s hundreds of people in this valley whose emotional life right now is right up to their eyeballs,” Father Sauer said.
Immaculate Conception is using some of its donations to help launch “a major mental health recovery initiative” that includes the costs of professionals, programs, events and individual counseling, he said.
As the community moves beyond the anniversary, there is hope the valley’s ministers will continue fostering their newfound connections and understanding.
Learning to work together has been “a wonderful part of the process,” said Rev. Jacobson. “I’ve often thought about how Jesus prayed that the church, that we’d be united. It’s unfortunate that it took a tragedy to bring us together.” And the way Catholics respond in times of need is a story he’s happy to share: “The Catholic Church stepped up in a big way, and it’s been really cool.”
Parietti is a contributing editor for Northwest Catholic, magazine of the Seattle Archdiocese, and local news editor for the website NWCatholic.org.