Even though there were no real church buildings to offer them refuge, victims of Southern California's wildfires converged Sunday at services more than 100 miles apart, grieving for their losses, searching for meaning and declaring their resolve to rebuild and rebound.
In San Diego County, Christina Alicia, who lost her Ramona home in last week's Witch fire, found solace in an outdoor prayer service at the Del Mar Fairgrounds that was attended by about 40 volunteers and fire evacuees who had gone to Qualcomm Stadium.
"I've been a quarter-inch away from total despair," said Alicia, 58, wiping tears from her eyes as she reflected on an Ecclesiastes meditation about anguish and hope. "This service has reinforced what people . . . have been telling me, 'Everything is going to be OK, you're safe, you're in God's hands.' "
To the north, about 600 congregants of fire-ravaged Malibu Presbyterian Church packed a theater at the nearby Malibu Performing Arts Center. The 4,565-acre Canyon fire had destroyed the white-steepled church a week ago Sunday.
So many people turned out that they had to stand along walls or sit on the floor during the service.
"You can't help but think, 'Why would God let our church burn down?' " said Terry Adamson, 49, a law professor at Pepperdine University.
Those attending the service said their devotion -- and their tight-knit communities -- would see them through this dark period. Congregants from Malibu Presbyterian, a fixture in the seaside city for half a century, shared stories about their longtime religious home on Malibu Canyon Road near Pepperdine. The sanctuary offered breathtaking views of the Pacific Ocean and the occasional deer sighting in the hills all around.
Within the walls of the church many families had commemorated life's milestones -- baptisms, marriages, funerals. On Sunday, burned pages of church texts were scattered across the ruined property.
Church leaders announced that Malibu Presbyterian's ministries would continue, along with a food drive for Malibu's homeless, and that the church preschool would reopen temporarily Nov. 5 at the Malibu Jewish Center & Synagogue.
"We will not let our faith be moved," the Rev. Greg Hughes told congregants. "I think God will bring us to a new place where we will glorify him on that hill again."
Then Hughes added: "You want to see a church on fire, I'll show you a real church on fire," prompting wild applause.
It was up to Hughes and other pastors to console their parishioners through the fire's upheaval. Hughes did it partly with humor, joking that the church had gained almost overnight fame -- including an interview he did on German television -- and that the fire started on its steeple, giving new meaning to the congregation's serving as a "beacon of light."
After a service that included Christian rock music and readings from the Gospel of John, parishioners said they remained resolute in their commitment.
"I feel excited. What is God going to do with us?" said Sarah Campbell, 22, a recent Pepperdine graduate who teaches in the church preschool. "It's time to stop crying."
At the fairgrounds, the Rev. Ed Donnally of Del Mar presided over an hourlong, outdoor service for fire evacuees, Red Cross volunteers and National Guardsmen.
He read from Ecclesiastes: "To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven," he said, praying. "A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance."
Donnally, a chaplain with the Victim Relief Ministries, a volunteer Christian organization that responds to disasters across the country, said he could not answer every question from people who had lost so much. And so, he told those at the service, they must have faith.
"It's sometimes very easy for people like me to give little one-sentence answers out of the Bible," he said. "But the truth is, even the clergy, we don't always know . . . but God does."
Carl Curt, 78, listened to the prayers, unsure whether his Fallbrook home had survived. He had been at the Del Mar shelter since Monday. He said he was praying for his home but especially for his daughter, who recently was diagnosed with brain cancer .
A few minutes after the service ended, Curt received a call from a neighbor who lives across the street from him. She had good news: His house had survived. "I feel elated," he said.