A few years ago, a neighbor called late one night to say that flames were shooting out of some windows on the second floor of our condominium building. In the next few minutes, law enforcement officers rushed through the hallways knocking on the doors of residents. Everyone needed to evacuate our building immediately. Jumping out of bed, I threw on some clothes, placed two surprisingly calm cats in a pet carrier, and left. Many residents, along with others from the neighborhood, were outside mingling, crying, comforting each other—and I’m sure, like myself, praying despite the screams of police sirens, ambulances, and fire trucks.
In an attempt to calm my own thoughts, I positioned myself on the side of the building, and prayed while looking up at the flames. What came to me was something Paul asked the Corinthians in the New Testament. “Do ye look on things after the outward appearance?” (II Cor 10:7). Although a question, it seemed to include the promise that even in the face of the alarming scenario of an obviously burning building, God, divine Love, is always on the scene despite the “outward appearance.” Eventually, after what seemed like an eternity, the heavy black smoke pouring from the roof turned to gentle white plumes. The fire had been extinguished.
Residents weren’t permitted to reenter the building right away, so we waited together in the courtyard. Hours passed. I gratefully acknowledged how blessed and safe from harm our little community had been. The homeowner who called the fire department said he felt impelled to take out his garbage at what was an unusually late hour. He’d spotted the fire through a window near the garbage chute. When the firefighters arrived, they covered the furnishings of the neighbor’s apartment below the unit where the fire had started in thick plastic. This helped to mitigate water damage.
The night air was absolutely still; the temperature mild. And no one had suffered any injuries or smoke inhalation.
Hallways and common areas were scorched, however. Black soot covered the walls. A hole had been cut in the roof giving access to where the fire had started. Yet that was the only condo with interior damage.
A feeling of overwhelming gratitude was expressed to our heroes, the firefighters! The following week, we brought huge baskets of homemade cookies, cheeses, and fruit to the firehouse to show our appreciation. They themselves seemed in awe at having put out such an intense fire in a relatively short time. For weeks afterward they would frequently bring trainees and city inspectors to our building to showcase what they’d accomplished that night with such expertise and efficiency. An arson investigation commenced. It appeared that the fire had been caused by an explosion, the possible result of illegitimate drug usage known as “freebasing.” Any evidence, which would have actually confirmed this, however, was destroyed in the fire.
It was difficult to avoid engaging in angry discussions about the homeowner who had placed our property in danger. I determined the need was to get a better sense in my prayers of the true meaning of home. Not as a physical location, but rather as a spiritual idea that includes security, peace, comfort, beauty, and freedom from fear and destructive tendencies.
The homeowner in question was unable to occupy the destroyed unit. But she instead continued to rent another unit in the building while hers was being restored. Unfortunately, a few other minor incidents occurred, which also appeared drug-related. Yet, it was only a matter of time before the woman just moved out. The bank repossessed her unit. Our building’s homeowners’ insurance provided new carpeting, wallpaper, and much needed paint throughout the entire building, a project that was accomplished in a relatively short amount of time. Capping the experience was an increased sense of family, respect for each other, and neighborliness among residents—an overall improved sense of community.
And, I learned, above all, that wherever we are, in whatever emergency-type situation or struggle we find ourselves, we can prove that we are always safe, secure, and at home with God.
Diane Dailey is a Christian Science practitioner and teacher in Los Angeles, California.