Dani's Niche

Family history. A novel idea.


A fire and a hymn

Coyote Fire 1964jpg

It was a sunny September day. Two weeks before, my parents had left me at a beautiful college in the forested hills of Santa Barbara.  Freshman orientation was underway. Our initiation turned out to be more frightening than any upperclassman could have planned.

When I first saw the smoke it was miles away. Later, standing with other students, I saw that the fire was quickly spreading across the hills. It was no respecter of  persons as it ravished mansions which housed expensive art collections as well as rustic hideaways. The flames moved closer to the school as we waited anxiously for the order to evacuate.

Cars started pulling up to our old timbered dorm. A student opened the trunk of his car. The thought of losing even my few belongings horrified me. I grabbed an armful of clothes on hangars and stuffed them into the car. The student drove my roommates and me to a fancy hotel that offered to house us. We stood in an elevator with a finely dressed woman who owned an estate with a mansion surrounded by manicured gardens. The fire left her with no home. She took refuge in the hotel with her overnight case in hand.

At night we watched from the balcony in horror at the sunset colors on a destructive path across the hills. Would there be a college to return to?

We did return. A small men’s dorm was lost and there was damage to the beautiful grounds but the school survived. There were stories of bravery among the men students who fought off the flames to save their school. One spark landed beside my dorm and lit a tree but someone was there to extinguish it.

The first day back on campus the whole student body came together to praise God. We sang “Great Is Thy Faithfulness,” a familiar hymn but now with new meaning. I have never heard it sung, before or since, with such emotion.

Great is Thy faithfulness! Great is Thy faithfulness!
Morning by morning new mercies I see;
All I have needed Thy hand hath provided —
Great is Thy faithfulness, Lord unto me!

I learned to not set my heart on material things. Even if those are lost, God is still faithful. His love never ends. He gives me peace and His presence is ever with me to cheer and guide. He gives strength for today, hope for tomorrow. His mercies are new every morning. God does not give me what I deserve. He gives what I don’t deserve. In spite of my sinfulness and shortcomings, He shows compassion. Every day He blesses me in new ways.

Shortly after the Coyote fire, a speaker at morning chapel challenged us to think about what we wanted to do with our lives once we graduated. For me that was still a long four years away, but I signed a card that said I was willing to go and do whatever the Lord wanted me to.

Just before graduation, I received that same card in the mail reminding me of my commitment. I was graduating with a degree in elementary education and I had committed to serving the Lord as a missionary to Africa.

A few months later I boarded a TWA jet that took me to Africa where I served the Lord for 20 years, having to trust Him for all my needs.

Singing the words of that wonderful hymn always fills me with praise and wonder at His leading in my life. Great is His faithfulness!

Great is Thy faithfulness, O God my Father;
There is no shadow of turning with Thee,
Thou changest not, Thy compassions they fail not,
As Thou hast been, Thou forever wilt be.

Great is Thy faithfulness!
Great is Thy faithfulness!
Morning by morning new mercies I see
All I have needed Thy hand hath provided
Great is Thy faithfulness, Lord unto me!

Summer and winter and springtime and harvest,
Sun, moon, and stars in their courses above;
Join with all nature in manifold witness,
To Thy great faithfulness, mercy, and love.

Pardon for sin and a peace that endureth,
Thine own dear presence to cheer and to guide;
Strength for today, and bright hope for tomorrow
Blessings all mine, with ten thousand beside.

Lyrics by Thomas O. Chisholm, 1923
Based on Lamentations 3:23

Referred to as “Five Days of Hell,” the Coyote Fire destroyed more than 100 homes, including many beautiful Montecito estates, and burned over 100 square mile of Los Padres National Forest.

postcard photo by Peter Fisher