Church Pieces Together Healing for San Bruno

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Bethany Presbyterian member Roberta Henry with the mural.

Three years after a massive explosion along a PG&E gas pipeline underneath a San Bruno neighborhood, a local church is helping the community heal using shattered bits of ceramics and glass from the blast itself in a poignant mosaic.

Three of the eight people killed on Sept. 9, 2010, were members of the Bullis family and Bethany Presbyterian Church—Lavonne, 82, her son Greg, 50, and his son William, 17.

All that was left of the Bullis home were pieces of cups, saucers, and Christmas decorations from Lavonne Bullis’ collections. Lavonne’s daughter, Jeannie Bullis Young, found shards of the orchid pattern china used when the family gathered for Easter and summer birthdays, a small angel holding a harp, and a sweet nativity scene that once decorated the home at Christmas, along with other reminders of happier times.

Young and other stunned family members scooped up the remnants out of the ashes of the family home while escorted by emergency personnel and Red Cross workers days after the tragedy. They tucked away the fragments, not sure what they would do with them. [Read more…]

Outsiders or Neighbors? Pastor Seeks to Humanize Immigrants

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Who is a neighbor? Is it the person one knows and understands, or is it the outsider who looks and speaks differently?

Presbyterian Pastor Ben Daniel tackles those questions in a new book he wrote that explores the spiritual reasons why undocumented immigrants should be extended friendship, not shunned.

In Neighbor; Christian Encounters With ‘Illegal’ Immigration, Daniel makes the case that immigrants – no matter their status – are neighbors who should be embraced as newcomers who have the potential to bless the community.

“In my life I have been blessed by immigrants, not because I bless them, but because they bless me,” Daniel said in an interview at a San Jose café. The city is home to a large population of immigrants from around the world, including Mexico.

From harvesting the food Americans eat, to contributing an estimated $9 billion per year into the Social Security system, to the possible “life-giving” friendships for individuals, undocumented immigrants are a blessing, according to Daniel.

The book also brings up a point seldom ever mentioned in debates: many of the undocumented immigrants come north guided by a deep faith in God. The immigrants may come for secular reasons, such as economics or politics, but it becomes a spiritual journey as they ask God to bless them and protect them along the way.

The Presbyterian Church (USA) pastor wrote the book mainly for churches and individual Christians, with the hopes they will leave behind misconceptions and prejudices by humanizing immigrants, not politicizing them. However, anyone interested in the issue will find interesting insights.

“As a people of faith, we cannot compartmentalize our lives,” he said of Christians’ responsibility in how they treat undocumented immigrants. “(Our faith) doesn’t stop when we encounter people we don’t know, or who break immigration laws, or who don’t speak our language.”

Writing the book came out of a life lived with and among immigrants for most of his adult life. Daniel serves as pastor of Foothill Presbyterian Church, in East San Jose; the congregation includes people from more than 20 countries. At home he and his wife Anne are parents to three children, two of whom are immigrants, and they are foster parents to a young woman who came to the United States as a refugee.

As a high school senior on the northern coast of California he helped translate for an El Salvadoran refugee family. Later he served seven years on the fundraising board of Presbyterian Border Ministry, a bi-national organization supported by the Presbyterian Church (USA) and the National Presbyterian Church of Mexico.

Neighbor is not a policy book – although it does discuss policy and policy changes that Daniel believes are necessary – but rather a look at the spiritual and human sides of the immigration debate.

In looking at the spiritual reasons undocumented immigrants make often tortuous, and sometimes deadly, border crossings, Daniel likens them to modern day Pilgrims, spiritual travelers. And because these travelers rely on God for guidance, Daniel argues Christians in turn need to walk with them.

“If God is walking with immigrants as they ford the Rio Grande, if God accompanies undocumented folks through the fiery heat of the desert, them perhaps American Christians need to walk with immigrants as well – not just to influence public policy, but to strengthen our faith and to deepen our spiritual connection to the Divine,” he writes.

The book includes Daniel’s interviews with Representative Zoe Lofgren, D-CA., representing the 16th Congressional District in San Jose, about immigration reform, and conservative New Mexico District Judge Robert C. Brack about the human cost he sees in his courtroom. Although the two are on opposite ends of the political spectrum, they shared a common interest in the passage of what Brack called “compassionate and humane immigration laws.”

Daniel also includes many stories of people he has encountered, including Christians involved in border ministries, a woman separated from her children living in sanctuary at a church in Southern California, and an educator making a difference with charter schools that were in part developed by undocumented immigrants living in Daniel’s own neighborhood.

When asked what obligation churches and Christians have when it comes to immigration, Daniel said, “We need to speak up on behalf of immigrants in light of immigration policy and a society that doesn’t see immigrants as fully human.”

Later he said, “Whatever Christians think about policy issues, I hope they will take away the knowledge that immigrants are our brothers and sisters in Christ … As human beings they bear the image of Christ; they are icons of Christ.”

Daniel  – who also blogs for the Huffington Post and regularly contributes to a local NPR affiliate – is not shying away from complex national debates. He’s working on another book due out next summer that he hopes will humanize Muslims as he attempts to do with undocumented immigrants in Neighbor.

A Church at the Center of Tragedy Reaching Out to Help Neighbors

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Prayer shawls sent by another church after the September 9 San Bruno explosion rest on the communion table at Bethany Presbyterian Church. Prayer shawls are created by knitters who pray into the shawls as they knit. They are also prayed over by a group before giving the shawls to those needing comfort in times of stress.

When they heard the natural gas pipeline blast that rocked the Crestmoor Canyon neighborhood on September 9, the pastor and members of Bethany Presbyterian Church sprang into action, not knowing that soon they’d be at the forefront of caring for victims.

Since the explosion and resulting fires that killed seven people, injured dozens more and destroyed 37 homes, the church and its national denomination have become emotional and spiritual caregivers to the community. They plan on offering support to the community for more than a year, as residents try to rebuild their homes and lives.

For Bethany, the tragedy became very personal when it was discovered that three of the seven killed – three generations of one family – were long-time members of the church.

The small church, only a half-mile away from where the pipeline exploded, was packed on the first Sunday after the tragedy, less than three days later. The congregation surrounded Sue and Janine Bullis, the mother and daughter who were still waiting at that time for official confirmation of the fate of three family members. Missing – but now declared deceased – were Sue’s husband, Greg Bullis, 50, their son William, 17, and Greg’s mother, Lavonne, 85.

At worship one week later, congregation members continued to support Sue and Janine, offering hugs and warm remembrances of Greg, “Willy”, and Lavonne. Lavonne, described by one congregation member as “the grandma who never said ‘no,’” had been a member for more than 40 years. Greg and Sue met at Bethany.

“We’ve always been a really close church,” Janine Bullis said after the service. Sue Bullis was quick to add the word “family” to the description.

Church Family Members Hear the Explosion

Some in that extended “family” were at the church on Thursday, September 9, just after 6 p.m., when they heard the explosion.

“We didn’t know what it was; we thought maybe it was a plane,” Interim Pastor Don Smith said. The church sits perched on a hill overlooking San Francisco International Airport, less than 10 miles from the area.

From the direction of the noise, they knew there might be congregation members who were affected, and they begin calling those members. Smith could not reach the Bullis home, but he was able to reach Sue Bullis, who was at work as a nurse. After a lot of frantic calls and searching it became clear that Greg, William and Lavonne were missing.

A Call for Help

Smith and some members of the congregation began visiting local hospitals to see if the three could be found among the burn victims. In the meantime, officials from the Presbytery of San Francisco, a regional governing body for the church, contacted national headquarters of the PDA, asking for help.

“We actually arrived before some of the houses were cooled off enough to search,” said Rick Turner, of the PDA. Turner, from South Carolina, and fellow team member Suzanne Malloy, from Southern California, arrived Saturday morning. The two volunteers met with church members and let local authorities know they were prepared to help.

The PDA is a mostly volunteer organization of the Presbyterian Church (USA) funded by donations from churches and individuals. Teams respond to events from church fires all the way up to nationally declared disasters. The main goals of the organization are to complement, not duplicate, efforts already underway through governmental and volunteer agencies, according to Turner and Malloy. Another goal is provide support to a congregation and the surrounding community over a long period of time – sometimes a year or more.

“It looks like our main responsibility (in San Bruno) is going to be emotional and spiritual care,” Turner said. He and Malloy said they expect they and other PDA volunteers will be returning to San Bruno over the next year to extend help as the community rebuilds.

Emotional and Spiritual Support

While PDA can supply resources such as monies, supplies, and volunteers, teams can also be called on to be the emotional and spiritual support for communities. In San Bruno, other agencies handling immediate physical needs and have asked PDA to specifically focus on those less tangible, but necessary, needs.

For example, Turner and Malloy said that Red Cross officials asked them to help plan the memorial service for the Bullis family, not something they usually do after a disaster. But in this case, between 1,500 and 1,900 mourners are expected. Greg Bullis was a nurse and former Marine, William was a senior at Mills High School, and Lavonne was an active community member. The pastor of a larger nearby church, First Presbyterian of Burlingame, offered to host the September 24 memorial.

“The response of Presbyterian Disaster Assistance has really been remarkable,” Smith said.

The overall community response has been remarkable, with numerous agencies, organizations and other church denominations coming together to help residents. Turner and Malloy said they could see that at a community meeting on their first day in San Bruno.

“It was amazing watching everybody working together,” Turner said.

To help, go to the Bethany Presbyterian website for more information.

Food Bank and Health Clinic Sow Seeds of Good Health for Kids

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San Jose pediatrician Daniel Delgado has a big problem. His young patients – all from low-income families – are overweight or obese and in danger of developing diabetes. Many don’t have access to the fresh fruits and vegetables vital for better nutrition. How to connect his patients with the foods they so desperately need?
Delgado is hoping that some of that need will be met through monthly visits  from Second Harvest Food Bank’s Produce Mobile to the East Valley Clinic of the Santa Clara County Valley Medical Center. The refrigerated truck is chock full of free, fresh produce reserved for qualified low-income families. It made its first-ever appearance at the clinic on Saturday, June 12, 2010,  and will return the second Saturday morning of each month.
“It’s the very first county clinic site where this type of collaboration is happening,” Delgado said. “It’s groundbreaking.” He said he is very pleased that the clinic can now connect healthy food to patients at the same place they receive health care.
An estimated 200 families lined up to take advantage of the truck’s bounty on the first visit, including Beatrice Romero and her 10-year-old son, Sanny. Romero came at the invitation of a doctor at the clinic.
“I think it’s very good for my children and my money,” Romero said. “It’s a help.”
As Director of the Pediatric Healthy Lifestyles Center, Delgado spent two years working with officials from Second Harvest and Santa Clara County to make his vision of providing the fruits and vegetables to the clinic’s patients. Several obstacles had to be overcome, including the untangling of some bureaucratic red tape.
Cindy McCown, Second Harvest senior director of programs and services, called their joint effort a “wonderful example of public and private partnership,” bringing together a county agency, a non-profit organization, and local churches.
The produce is donated to Second Harvest by local farmers, the California Association of Food Banks and Feeding America. In some cases the food bank pays for shipping of the produce, or they may pay farmers pennies per pound.
“This is food that would have been dumped,” McCown said at the event, pointing to dozens of boxes of various produce. As an example, she showed off nearly perfect hot house tomatoes that were blemished on their tops, making them unmarketable in stores.
Selection of produce varies by season; on the first clinic visit the selection included oranges, carrots, potatoes, bananas, nectarines and cherries. Simple to prepare recipes are provided in different languages, to give clients ideas about how to use the food.
Second Harvest has two donated trucks in the program, which was started in 2006. An estimated 32,000 people in Santa Clara and San Mateo counties benefit, McCown said. The trucks – brightly decorated with enticing photos of fresh food on the sides – visit a total of 49 sites, including schools, a dental clinic, a soup kitchen and churches.
Usually the agencies and organizations Second Harvest partner with have volunteers who can help oversee the produce distribution at each of the sites. But the East Valley Clinic does not have the people power, McCown said, which became a hurdle for bringing a truck there.
To overcome that issue, McCown turned to Second Harvest board member Pat Plant, who is also the Hunger Action Enabler for the Presbyterian Church (USA) and The Presbytery of San Jose. Plant found five churches willing to provide 22 volunteers to work at the clinic every month.
The partnership between the clinic and Second Harvest sprouted from a severe need that Delgado and fellow doctors see daily at the clinic. More than 30 percent of the children served by the East Valley Clinic are overweight. Most have developed insulin resistance or pre-diabetes and need fresh produce for the fiber and nutrients that will prevent them from developing diabetes in the future.
“People look at an overweight person and they think they are a glutton and are eating too much,” Delgado told me. “That’s not true. There’s a huge disparity in what people eat and how they eat.”
Some of the issues facing Delgado’s patients include things like “food insecurity,” which means being insecure about access to food due to lack of money. This can lead to things like hoarding food or overeating when there is access, and buying lower cost and lower quality food. Second Harvest officials also point to “food deserts” or entire low-income sections of cities where there is little or no access to large supermarkets that carry fresh, high quality produce at lower prices.
Delgado said there are grocery stores in East San Jose, but he called the produce available “suboptimal.” He also said that families already strapped for cash will hesitate to buy fresh vegetables out of a fear that their kids won’t eat them, meaning the money will be wasted. He hopes that the access to free produce will take away that worry, “and that will improve habits,” he said.
It’s also very common that at certain times of the month, families might not have the money to purchase food. The clinic’s doctors often refer patients to Second Harvest, which provides free food to families that qualify.
For the first mobile visit, Delgado said clinic doctors invited patients from the healthy lifestyles center, the pediatric and obstetrics departments and a department that cares for diabetic pregnant women, called PEP Services, or Perinatal Evaluation and Procedures. Delgado called targeting kids and moms-to-be first a “no brainer.” He said they will invite more of the clinic’s patients as the program continues.
Despite overcoming obstacles to bringing the truck to the clinic, one more obstacle still exists. Delgado said some patients may be embarrassed or ashamed to take free food. To overcome that fear, the clinic is trying to make the event more about health than handouts.
“By tying it to the health of their children or unborn child, we’re trying to help overcome that stigma,” Delgado said.
McCown is optimistic that patients will take advantage of the free produce. She called trust a huge issue for low-income clients and thinks they will trust the doctors who are urging them to participate. She also lauded Delgado for working to make the Produce Mobile a reality at the clinic.
“Without Dr. Delgado’s vision it would not be happening.”
To find out more about how you can help, go to www.shfoodbank.org.