Fighting Fire With Faith And Hope

Susan Page
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Wednesday - October 31, 2007
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As our little ghosts, goblins, witches and Harry Potters fan out into the neighborhoods threatening “tricks” if no treats this Halloween, the wildfire victims of Southern California are left to ponder why the devastating flames “tricked” some and “treated” others. Fire, like Halloween’s scariest film characters, is an indiscriminate killer. So why one house sits untouched while all around it are destroyed seems a mystery.

But for two friends of mine, Kallie and Charmain Coertzen, no strangers to adversity and natural disasters, it’s no mystery. They thank God for being spared from the fire that surrounded them last week.

The Coertzens, founders of El Shaddai Orphanage in Piggs Peak, Swaziland, Africa, are people of deep faith. They followed “God’s call” to start taking in AIDS orphans when all they had were two small Winnebagos, an old jeep and “300 acres of virgin territory” at the top of a mountain in the No. 1 AIDS-infected country in the world. Today, they have dorms for more than 30 boys and girls, a school that teaches and feeds hot meals to 190 children daily (provided in part by Heart for Africa), a small menagerie of farm animals, some crops and a few volunteers.

Oh, and a dream. Kallie believes a dairy farm would provide El Shaddai a permanent food source plus an income to help alleviate the never-ending needs poverty and disease manifest. That dream brought the Coertzens - two young children, Carl and Naomi, in tow - to Escondido, Calif., in beautiful San Pasqual Valley east of San Diego. Don and Marie Verger welcomed the Coertzens to their well-known 5,000-cow Verger Dairy Farm so they could observe and learn about the dairy farming business firsthand.

It turns out the farm was smack in the furious path of the California fires.

I had volunteered at El Shaddai with several others in 2006 and just last July visited the Coertzens in Swaziland again. I knew they were to be in Southern California, and even hoped they’d visit Hawaii and share their inspiring story with local church and civic groups. But, as television pictures of the fires stunned us all, that they might be in harm’s way never occurred to me until this e-mail from friend Janine Maxwell:

“Today Caroline (McGraw, the Coertzens’San Diego host, also evacuated from her home) called to say that they were going to work their way around the back to take hot food to the Vergers and Coertzens as their electrical lines are down and they can’t cook. Caroline also said they couldn’t take the main highways because the roads have melted!

“Charmain said all the houses in the valley where the Verger ranch is are gone. They have burned to the ground and are simply gone. The Vergers’is the only house left standing. Charmain and Marie ran to their barn (filled with thousands of bails of hay) and let the horses out just before the flames engulfed it. The barn, the feeding troughs, everything else is gone except for their house.”

Despite the fact that Don Verger and Kallie had hosed down the house, the flames came too close for safety. Complete engulfment was imminent, so the two families got in the car and drove to the middle of a field.

Maxwell’s e-mail continued, “Charmain said, ‘The flames rose up and made terrible sounds. I yelled ‘Praise Jesus’ at the top of my lungs. The flames stopped dead within six feet of the house.’”

Was this just the capriciousness of wind-driven fires? Some scientific phenomenon? A trick? A treat? Or a miracle?

Everyday life’s a struggle at El Shaddai Orphanage, but the Coertzens’ faith never waivers. There is always good news to compensate for the challenges. After his last surgery, Kallie’s recurring melanoma cancer seems to be gone. In July 2006, Heart for Africa volunteers, including 10 from Oahu, helped build a girls’ dorm at El Shaddai; a week later it was destroyed in a freak “dry hurricane.” Within weeks the dorm was rebuilt by volunteers, including Hawaii’s Janet and Jere Scott. El Shaddai is growing. Children are being saved from AIDS, malnutrition and neglect.

Now that the Coertzens have had their “trial by fire” in California, the dairy is bound to happen.

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