Thanks to the heroic efforts of this pilot, and many others, St. Columba’s, Inverness is still standing

Posted on September 9, 2020. Updated on September 9, 2020

Watch video of the heroic event here 

The local Marin County and California resources were strained to the maximum the weekend of August 24 – 25 with the Woodward Fire on the Point Reyes National Seashore. St. Columba’s, Inverness, and much of the wider West Marin population ,was in suspense about pending evacuation orders. Federal fire management and the Marin County Fire Department daily briefing on the status of the fire for August 27 included the following update: 2,860 acres burned, 8% containment, 428 personnel, including a 12-line crew, 19 fire engines, 5 helicopters, 4 masticators, 2 dozers, 2 planes. As of September 6, a hard-won 95% containment was achieved.

On Saturday August 24, it was just one of those planes, flying low, scooping up thousands of gallons of Tomales Bay water that had Father Vincent Pizzuto uncharacteristically and boisterously disrupting the quiet serenity that usually surrounds nearby St. Columba’s Church and Retreat House. “Whoo hoo! Go! Go! Go!” he cheered, his long arms waving in vigorous encouragement of the pilot and plane, which, from the church’s hillside, appeared as a small toy dipping into the bay below.
The vast destruction of the California fires, our country’s unyielding racial and political conflicts, the global COVID pandemic, and the manifold natural disasters simultaneously plaguing our country can feel like an assault of forces so beyond our control, beyond our comprehension, even beyond our attempt to address, that our spirits can fail under the sheer exhaustion of it all.
But in the dedication of this one pilot in one small plane contributing his one small contribution to the greater whole ushered in tremendous exuberance and hope: scoop and drop, scoop and drop, back and forth, over and over in unending cycles—a steadfast repetitive action by just one of 428 personnel in defiance of all that seems impossible. Father Vincent was buoyed. The balm of the small plane’s symbolic significance brought him renewed hope at a time desperate for good news and the grace of small acts that can go unnoticed but result in big shifts in outcome.
St. Columba’s retreat house has been closed since the beginning of the pandemic in March—a particularly difficult turn of events given that the Retreat House is the primary income source of ministry and revenue for the congregation. As with other retreat centers, employers and employees all around the world, it is not clear how St. Columba’s will survive. Donations have been made in remarkable acts of generosity, but those funds are not sustainable. However, now with the potential threat of destruction by fire, the concern over funding has taken a back seat.
Unlike November 2019, when St. Columba’s opened its doors to those seeking refuge and safety from the ravages of the Kincade fire, now many of the church’s congregants, who last year helped care for Kincade evacuees, are seeking refuge themselves. St. Columba’s, now less than three miles from the Woodward Fire is itself threatened and remains under evacuation warnings. Still, the spirit of our congregants remained undaunted as so many responded with speed and enthusiasm to his email last week calling on members of the congregation to assist him in evacuating the church of its most precious, historic, and sacred items.

In under two hours the church was emptied and everything that could be salvaged was loaded into the cars of parishioners ready to drive them to safety in the event of an evacuation: Clothing and blankets: check! First aid kit, flashlights, batteries: check! Important documents and cash: check! Water and non-perishable food; check! Full gas tank: check! Sacred icons and irreplaceable art: check! Liturgical vestments: check! Baptismal, wedding, and death records: check! Historical church photos and documents: check, check, check!

It turns out that it takes a village to evacuate a church and retreat house—and St. Columba’s village came through. These communal acts of kindness—no doubt shown throughout West Marin--are always a light in the darkness.
This is the context in which Father Vincent felt his spirits lift at seeing the small plane and its mighty perseverance on the bay below him. And, as is he won't, Father Vincent shared his uplifting experience by weaving it into his Sunday sermon – all so that his hope may be felt and shared by all.

One of the scriptural readings was the story of the infant Moses, the son of a Hebrew slave hidden by his mother in a basket in the reeds of the Nile, hoping against hope to save him from the pharaoh’s edict to kill all Jewish males under the age of two. Upon seeing the baby in the river, the pharaoh’s daughter claims him as her own. Raised as a royal, the adult Moses reclaims his identity as a Hebrew slave ultimately saving his people.

A despondent mother, an enslaved people, a time of uncertainty and fear. A lowly and vulnerable baby in a basket destined to save his people. And another lowly child, born under the tyranny of Herod in a later age, again fulfills his destiny to redeem his people. Whether believed by faith or appreciated as a metaphor, the meaning of these stories is clear.

Though Father Vincent does not equate the fire-fighters with the infant Moses or Jesus, he does invite us to see the parallels between an unassuming infant drawn from the waters of the Nile and the act of one unassuming pilot drawing water from Tomales Bay. Indeed, great and mighty things can come from unassuming people and unexpected places. When we open our eyes to see and our hearts to feel, hope can and does arise from actions found in those seemingly insignificant acts. Perhaps it is precisely the uplifting power of this kind of hope that will save our world.

And so, to the pilot of the small plane and to each and every one of the 427 personnel fighting to keep us safe—many from out-of-state-- we say with hearts full of hope and gratitude: “Whoohoo! Go! Go! Go!”  And to the two-line crew injured on 8/27, we hold you in close in our prayer.

Godspeed for a rapid recovery!