Good Mourning Modeled by Chaplains and Clergy at the Oakland Ghost Ship Fire

Image: Anthony Bonnett, via Facebook.

On December 2nd, Fr. Jason Landeza, the pastor of St. Benedict’s church in East Oakland and the chaplain to the Oakland police and fire departments, was headed to bed around 11:30PM when two fire alarms came in on his phone. Landeza drove ten minutes to the site of the fire, which had reached three alarms by the time he arrived. A warehouse in East Oakland was burning. “The thing that hit me,” he said, “is that there’s a bunch of young people there.”

As Landeza walked around the scene, he overheard more and more people saying the same thing: the people inside were there for “a concert, dancing, bands.” People were trying to reach friends and calls kept going to voicemail. Around 3AM at the command post, one of the battalion commanders asked Landeza if he was hearing what they were hearing: “there could be up to 100 people in there.”

Because fire departments are often the first on site at a disaster area, people like Landeza are trained to be prepared. Landeza said, for example, that the first responders at the Oakland fire had blankets but no water, and as a chaplain he’d been trained to always keep bottled water in his car. Much of the work chaplains do is simply about talking to people and taking care of basic needs: hydration, warmth, companionship. Chaplains are not there to proselytize or convert, and many times, religious conviction comes second to a ministry of presence to the grieving and worried. The Federation of Fire Chaplains explains on their web site that they are “non-denominational, non-sectarian,” and do not compromise people’s “belief or convictions.”

When it became clear that many people in the Oakland warehouse known as Ghost Ship were young artists, Landeza and other chaplains at the site understood that even if they were religious themselves, they needed to “appreciate the diversity” of Oakland, which is ethnic and cultural, but religious as well, including a large percentage of nonreligious young adults.

Only 31% of adults in California attend some form of weekly religious worship, and most of the victims of the Ghost Ship fire were in their 20s and 30s, making them statistically more likely to be agnostic, atheist, or another of the identities often collected under the category of Nones. The fact that most of the people on site were artists, and many of them also LGBTQ, meant that any chaplains present needed to be sensitive to the possibility that their friends and family waiting outside for news might also be religiously unaffiliated or had even been alienated or hurt by religion.

Which makes it all the more ironic that chaplains from the Billy Graham Crusade had, according to Landeza, been trying to enter the fire site for days. Landeza, who was born and raised in Berkeley and has ministered in the Bay Area for decades (and had been at the fire site for five days straight by the time this writer was able to reach him), said the Billy Graham chaplains were “not even from the area” and had driven in from other parts of California. “They don’t reflect the diversity of Oakland or appreciate the diversity. They wouldn’t know what LGBT means. We don’t need people like that around here.”

The Billy Graham chaplains, Landeza said, “want to convert people to Jesus and they want to put it on their resume [that they] saved 10 people in heathen Oakland. There were trans people here, kids who’ve been alienated from their families, people with no religion.” Landeza emphasized that the local chaplains who arrive with first responders are part of the community. What he saw were “hurting people,” including parents of the missing. And in those circumstances, he wanted chaplains on the scene “who were sensitive to the diverse dynamic of Oakland and not people wanting to force Jesus on them.”

The day after the fire, local members of the arts community began Facebook organizing a vigil at Lake Merritt that took place on Monday, December 5. Pastor Ruben Rios of the Grand Advent Church got involved by offering parking for the vigil at his church, because he realized that “parking would be a mess.” The vigil’s organizer reached out to Rios and asked if he’d be willing to speak, and Rios wound up acting as the event’s MC.

The vigil was secular and consisted of a series of testimonies about the dead from friends and family. In footage streamed live on Facebook, the grief is palpable and raw. Several speakers broke down in tears and couldn’t continue. One admitted she was drunk, which was the only way she could handle getting up behind a microphone. God was barely mentioned. When asked about the secular nature of the vigil and why he agreed to participate, Rios responded that “it is always the responsibility of clergy to act in moments of disaster, regardless of the secular tone and style.” Throughout the vigil, he said, “[I] kept thinking of Jesus and where this radical Rabbi was in moments of disaster. I kept thinking that most of his ministry was done outside the walls of the church or synagogue.”

Rios began his concluding prayer, not with a call to Jesus, but with an apology. He stated that Christianity had a history of hurting members of the LGBTQ community, and that Christianity owed them an apology because of that. When asked why he chose to begin this way, Rios said that he “felt moved by God to do so. I recognize that when secular or unchurched people hear the word ‘Christian’ they lump every Jesus follower in the same batch.” He added that this wasn’t the fault of secular or nonreligious people, but that it was the fault of Christians who haven’t done the best job of “acting like Jesus.” So, he says, he “wanted to apologize for that.”

Rios’ church is a Seventh Day Adventist congregation. Like the institutional Catholic church where Landeza ministers, Adventism has remained stridently opposed to same-sex marriage and has often made life difficult for LGBTQ members of the denomination. However, as with the many individual Catholic parishes that are explicit in their welcome to LGBTQ people, Rios says that at his church, “we accept everyone, appreciate everyone, and affirm everyone.” He acknowledges that Adventism has conservative values, but that it “doesn’t stop me or my congregation from loving everyone,” which was part of his call to minister at the vigil.

In the days since the fire, the names and stories of the dead have continued to be revealed. And religious groups in Oakland have done their best to respond. Rabbi Mark Bloom of Temple Beth Abraham held a memorial service on December 8th. Rev. Deborah Avery of First Presbyterian Church announced a memorial concert and benefit taking place on December 9th. And prayer services, vigils, and fundraisers have begun all over the city, in venues both secular and religious, including in many of the remaining warehouses, where real concern about the future of those spaces is palpable. At the fire site, chaplains have carried flowers and photographs through the fencing to create a makeshift shrine, because the building is still sealed off from the public.

At the Lake Merritt vigil this past Monday, attendants were asked not to bring candles out of respect for those who had died in flames. Instead, they brought glow sticks and cell phones, and for several hours, the sky above the lake lit up, not in the orange, red and yellow of fire, but in eerie shades of blue. Oakland wore the color of grief.