Fire focuses faith during LDS services in Idaho, Arizona

Published: Monday, July 2 2012 3:10 p.m. MDT

In this Thursday, June 28, 2012 photo, a Bureau of Land Management aerial tanker lays down fire retardant near homes off of Mink Creek Road just south of Pocatello, Idaho. Fire officials say 66 homes and 29 outbuildings in Pocatello have burned in the fast-moving Charlotte fire.

The Idaho State Journal, Doug Lindley, Associated Press

July's Fast Sunday was filled with expressions of faith and determination to press onward for members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints whose lives have been impacted recently by fire.

"Fast Sunday" is what Latter-day Saints call the first Sunday of each month. The term comes from the monthly LDS practice of abstaining from food and drink for two meals and donating to a special church fund for the care of the poor and needy the money that would have otherwise been spent on food. Fast Sunday is also the day when local LDS worship services are traditionally unplanned, with the time that is usually allotted for sermons left open for members of the congregation to stand and share extemporaneous expressions of faith.

And in a number of congregations around the American West on Sunday, those "extemporaneous expressions of faith" were on fire.

"We are the Mink Creek Ward and we are strong," said Bishop Efrain Velasquez of the Mink Creek Ward near Pocatello, Idaho, as he opened his congregation's "testimony meeting," as the first Sunday worship service is called. "We will survive this. We will."

According to an article by reporter Jimmy Hancock in the Idaho State Journal, the Velasquez family is one family of 17 in the Mink Creek Ward who lost their homes in Idaho's Charlotte fire in the Pocatello area. According to news reports, a total of 66 homes have been destroyed in the blaze.

During his testimony, Bishop Velasquez said that upon receiving the evacuation order on Thursday, he knelt to pray and ask God to spare his home. When it was a neighbor's home that was spared and not his, he joked to the congregation that "I must have been facing the wrong way."

Kenneth Stucki, president of the Pocatello Idaho Stake (a stake is an ecclesiastical unit consisting of several local congregations or wards, similar to a diocese in other Christian denominations), attended the Mink Creek worship service and said his own faith had been strengthened by the spirit of church members there. After the meeting he told Hancock that the LDS Church's Deseret Industries thrift stores will have clothing, shoes and other goods needed by all fire victims, whether they are LDS or not.

"We need to make sure that those who are not members know they have access to this as well," Stucki said.

In Arizona, Tim Vetscher of ABC 15 reported that members of three LDS congregations, currently without their usual chapel because a fire destroyed their meetinghouse last week, met in other LDS buildings in the Phoenix area to worship and share their faith during Fast Sunday testimony meetings.

"A building is just a building," said Margayle Jones of the Tolleson Ward. "It's near and dear to our hearts and we love our church (building) but life goes on."

Phoenix-area Stake President Ronald Waldron said last week that the three displaced wards would be assimilated into other LDS meetinghouses until the Tolleson meetinghouse can be rebuilt, a process that may require up to two years to complete.

Meanwhile, the Arizona Republic reports that a team of 21 disaster investigators have arrived in Tolleson to search for the cause of the fire.

"The team includes chemists, engineers, a schematic artist and a forensic mapper," the newspaper reported, adding that the team also includes "fire investigators, a bomb technician and a dog that sniffs out accelerants."

Members of the team declined to indicate when they will know if the fire was the result of arson, but an earlier story in the Republic indicated the process may take "weeks."

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