In late August 2013, Tuolumne County became host to the third largest wildfire in California history. The Rim Fire went on to consume almost 257,000 acres or over 400 square miles of forest. At this writing, full containment is not expected before October 1st and there were times when the fire threatened over 4,500 homes. Residents of those homes were under an evacuation “advisory” and many people, including me and my family, chose to leave the area for a time. To many it was a catastrophe of biblical proportions.
On Saturday, August 24th, I attended a town hall meeting at the Sierra Bible Church, one of the largest meeting places in the area. Officials from the Forest Service, Cal Fire, the Tuolumne County Sheriff and the Board of Supervisors briefed the public on what what known and what we might expect in the coming days. At that meeting, District 5 Supervisor Karl Rodefer led the meeting in prayer. He prayed for the safety of the firefighters and other emergency workers. He prayed that those who had been put out of their homes and were facing hardship would have a safe return. He prayed in the name of Jesus Christ.
Listening to this, I had several conflicting reactions. I tried to connect with the words and empathize with the people around me. However, as the prayer continued, I became dismayed that an elected official was going so far into the realm of the church. I’m sure that this view put me in the minority. Many, if not most of people in the hall found the act appropriate and probably drew comfort from it. Supervisor Rodefer obviously offered the prayer in all sincerity and with the intent of supporting his community.
And yet, by doing so, he stopped representing me. I am a non-religious person who does not pray in the traditional sense. If I followed the religion of my heritage, as a Jew I would not pray to Jesus. Supervisor Rodefer’s job at this event was to represent the interests of everyone in Tuolumne County, including the non-believers. By voicing his deepest hopes and strongest concerns in the form of a denominational prayer, he chose to excluded some small portion of us. No matter how strong his personal beliefs, this is not what he was elected to do.
On September 3rd, the evacuation advisory was lifted and everyday life has since returned to normal. The fire still burns in wilderness areas of the Stanislaus National Forest but it will remain contained until the rains come and douse it completely. I hope that in future times of crisis – which will surely come – our elected officials will recognize their obligation to speak in words that are accessible to everyone they represent, regardless of their faith or level of belief.