“God is answering our prayers for sunshine and some wind to help move the river,” said Josh Friend, pastor of Evergreen Community Church, the only Christian Reformed congregation in Fort McMurray, Alta. Praying for sunshine and wind is no small prayer after a week of severe floods. Early Sunday morning, April 26, the rivers around Fort Mac, as the locals call it, began rising. Prevented from flowing downstream due to an ice jam stretching 25 km (15.5 miles), river water spilled into downtown, submerging streets and vehicles and damaging businesses and houses. The flooding forced the evacuation of about 15,000 people. “There is no reasonable engineering solution to unlock the ice jam at this point,” said Alberta’s Environment Minister at a news conference a couple of days later. “We have to rely on warm weather to soften the ice.”
This is the second time in four years that residents of Fort Mac have been evacuated from their homes. In May 2016, the entire city was evacuated because of devastating wildfires. Friend relayed the story of one family who lost their house in the fire, recently got it rebuilt, only to lose it again in this flood.
“This is a rough time for Fort Mac,” he said. “There is the COVID-19 pandemic, its required social distancing, and economic struggles due to the slump in oil prices.” Fort McMurray, which has built up around oil sands projects, plays a significant role in the development of Canada’s oil industry.
“The hospital is close to the floodwaters, so there is anxiety about that,” Friend added. “Half of the city’s 10 groceries stores have closed and, in the others, shelves are getting bare. The main downtown food bank is closed. Because the water treatment plant is close to the river, there is a boil water advisory for the entire city. There is despair.”
About Evergreen, Friend said, “As of now, we only have a few people who have been uprooted. The church (built on a hill) is safe and so are most congregants—but the work (of clearing out from the flood) is only getting started. It’s going to take a lot of people.”
Church members can be the hands and feet of Jesus, said Friend, but admittedly, there is anxiety about helping in the midst of COVID-19. Some helped pile sandbags around the hospital. Some opened their homes to evacuees. With a licensed commercial kitchen, Evergreen can help provide emergency food. They hope to make 1,000 sandwiches to distribute in the following days. A quarter of Evergreen’s community garden will be set aside for donations to the food bank and for its cooking program that will provide meals.
With the city slogan “Fort Mac Strong,” residents are said to be generally resilient in overcoming adversity. They’ve done it before. However, Friend points out that there is significant depression and other mental health issues.
“There’s an opportunity for Evergreen to be a place where people can safely ask ‘WHY?’ even while shaking their fists at God like the Psalmists did.” Friend hopes especially that the church can offer hope—hope in Jesus Christ and the assurance that God is with us in the midst of this.
“People need to hear this,”he said.