Mourners turn to faith in time of tragedy

From left, Gail and Ron Thompson join Cathleen Abramowicz in singing hymns during the candlelight vigil in Legion Park on March 25 in honor of those affected by the Oso mudslide. - Kirk Boxleitner
From left, Gail and Ron Thompson join Cathleen Abramowicz in singing hymns during the candlelight vigil in Legion Park on March 25 in honor of those affected by the Oso mudslide.
— image credit: Kirk Boxleitner

ARLINGTON — In times of tragedy, many people find strength in faith, and the Arlington community proved to be no exception in the wake of the Oso mudslide on March 22, as three different churches coordinated three consecutive days of religious observances for those affected by this disaster.

The Arlington United Church’s service on the evening of March 24 saw Family Ministry Director Jessica Ronhaar leading roughly 50 attendees, including both regular congregants and first-time visitors alike, in praying for those who were searching for victims and survivors of the slide, as well as those who have been displaced as a result of the slide.

“Those who are searching, we can’t even imagine what they must have seen,” said Ronhaar, as she called upon God to guide the searchers and to keep hope alive in their hearts. “We pray for those who have lost their homes, and lost all that they had. We pray You can bring them the safety of having homes again.”

Ronhaar went on to pray for the communities of Oso, Darrington and Arlington, whose interconnectedness she touted as a strength.

“We confess that we’re confused and we don’t understand,” Ronhaar said. “We’re in mourning, and we feel helpless. We’re crying out to You, Lord. We pray for Your presence, and we thank You for our communities coming together.”

As Bill Dyer played guitar during the stretches of silent prayer in between Ronhaar’s invocations, Silvana resident Lyle Kellogg took Ronhaar up on her invitation to all the attendees, if any of them wished to say their prayers aloud, first by offering his own sentiments, then by reciting the Prayer of Saint Francis, which opens with the line, “Lord, make me an instrument of Your peace.”

“We ask You to hold our hands and calm our minds,” Kellogg said, during his own earlier prayer. “We ask You to hold each one of us gently, and let us know that You’re here.”

“When I woke up this morning, I just felt helpless,” said attendee Jodi Hopkins, after the prayer service had concluded that night. “This doesn’t fix it, but it’s a start.”

“The Lord is our only real strength in dark times,” said fellow attendee Shirley Clark, who praised the Oso and Darrington communities for being as well-prepared as possible for such a disaster. “This has been a huge injury to Snohomish County as a whole, but we can’t let it tear us apart. This is when we need God most.”

As Liz Foxley spoke with Clark and Hopkins after the service, she admitted that she’d initially dismissed the sight of so many emergency response vehicles on the road on March 22 as probably being part of a training exercise.

“I did not for one second think that it could be real,” Foxley said. “Even now, it makes no sense to me. You hear about stories like this in the news, but it always seems really far off. Now that it’s happened to us, I’ve been so moved by even the smallest acts of kindness. So many people in this community have taken the time to do awesome work. Our eyes, ears and hearts are open.”

Although Pastor Chad Blood, of the Lifeway Foursquare Church in Arlington, didn’t start the candlelight vigil in Legion Park on the following evening of March 25, he agreed to step in and help coordinate the event after its original organizers realized that it was rapidly growing beyond the more intimate gathering they’d envisioned.

“We light these candles to provide comfort and encouragement,” Blood said. “Light gives us hope, purpose and direction, and we will always have the light of Jesus Christ, who stands with us and serves as the light of the world. At a time like this, people need to know that they can turn to a God who will love you more than you will ever know.”

Blood gave his hometown a good-natured ribbing, in the midst of leading them in choruses of hymns in the Legion Park gazebo.

“I love Arlington because Arlington loves parades and potlucks,” Blood said. “One of the first things we do for those in need is hold a pot luck, because we love food,” he added, drawing laughter from the crowd. “I want to thank you for showing your love in that way, and for continuing to stand by each other, because we need each other.”

Snohomish County Council member Ken Klein, a lifelong Arlington native, couldn’t keep the emotion out of his voice when Blood called him up to speak.

“I am honored to represent Darrington, Arlington and Marysville, and I am so proud of my brothers and sisters in those communities right now,” said Klein, who praised Darrington in particular for its preparedness and fortitude in the face of its current adversity, as well as both the first responders and the community members who have contributed their time and resources to the search and rescue efforts. “Everybody knows somebody who’s been impacted by this. People ask me if I’m surprised by the reaction to this tragedy, and of course I’m not, because I’m from here. We will not stop until there is not one shred of hope left, because if we were in the same situation, our brothers and sisters in Darrington would do the same for us.”

Blood had planned to take a mission trip to Haiti later in the week, but as soon as he heard news of the Oso mudslide, he knew he’d be staying home for the foreseeable future.

Sabrina Koths, one of the candle-bearers that night, noted that one of her husband’s former work partners has been missing since the slide on March 22.

“He was slated to work on a house in that area during the day,” Koths said. “So many families are waiting to hear any word on their lost loved ones. It feels like life should be standing still in the meantime, but of course, it can’t. When you think about how it was a Saturday, and all the kids that must have been at home — as a mom, that’s what gets to me.”

By contrast to the throngs that mobbed Legion Park the night before, the Arlington Free Methodist Church’s six-hour day of prayer and community support on the afternoon of March 26 was relatively sparsely attended, having attracted only an estimated 10 visitors three hours in.

“We’re okay with that,” said Jeanne Wessel, missions coordinator for the Arlington Free Methodist Church. “We just wanted to give people a safe place, where they could pray and communicate with each other.”

Wessel deemed it a natural and healthy impulse to want to reach out to those in need, and provide them with comfort.

“Even though this is a huge disaster, we can let people know that God is still present in their lives,” Wessel said. “Our hearts go out to those who are in pain, and coping with losses. We’re all in this together, so we want to help them out any way we can.”

Although Wessel does not believe that any members of the Arlington Free Methodist Church’s congregation are among the missing or deceased, she nonetheless pointed out that the Oso community is close enough for just about everyone in the Arlington community to be connected to it in some way, including fellow congregation member Walter Mulalley.

“I grew up 15 miles from the site of that slide,” Mulalley said. “One of the guys I went to school with lived out there, but he survived. My heart is with all the victims and workers on that site who are having to deal with all that stuff.”

Wessel invited community members who need to talk about their feelings in the wake of this disaster to call the Arlington Free Methodist Church at 360-435-8986.

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