Hundreds of Westmont students returned to campus Jan. 16 after being evacuated following the deadly Montecito mudslides to resume the spring semester. Before classes began the following day, the community gathered in the gym for a time of music, prayer and inspiration.
The Westmont students, most of whom were evacuated from campus at the end of the fall semester due to the Thomas Fire, had returned for the spring semester Jan. 8 for one day of classes before being evacuated again due to a loss of water in the wake of the mudslides.
Although the campus was unscathed by the rainstorm and the mudslides, many in the community suffered great loss. President Gayle D. Beebe, whose daughter Anna is director of youth ministries at Montecito Covenant Church, offered the names of those who were killed or lost homes in the tragedy.
“In our church alone, 20 different members of the youth group have been impacted by this, and there will be more and more,” he said.
Beebe referenced Romans 12:15, where Paul writes that part of our responsibility as followers of Christ is to learn how to rejoice with those who rejoice and mourn with those who mourn.
“Over time the way in which we respond to tragedy teaches us to find God in the midst of suffering,” Beebe said. “When we face these disruptions, inevitably we return to a predictable life pattern and we begin to experience again the love of God and his steadfast presence. But in the midst of it, it can be very choppy. The most significant growth in my life has occurred in moments like these, where we face significant challenges and setbacks.
“I have also learned that we don’t all suffer at the same depth or with the same complexity. And when we are not suffering, but we are around people who are suffering, it’s an opportunity for us to be present and to truly be Christ’s presence to others. It’s a wonderful opportunity and a wonderful privilege, and it is one that has come to us.”
Benjamin Peterson, president of the Westmont College Student Association, said that since Westmont has been largely spared by the disasters, students should respond by serving the local community with their skills and time. “A number of people from student government, student ministries and residence life are joining together to form a student response team or recovery team that will work closely with churches and local organizations to find need and opportunity to care,” he said.
He mentioned local non-profits such as the United Way, the Food Bank, Red Cross, Salvation Army and individuals and families who may need help. “We will need groups of volunteers to address those needs and opportunities as they arise and taking hope that we can be a shining light in the darkness to those around us who need it far more,” he said. “This is our local community, and it needs hope more than ever. In the darkest moments, I think we should hold onto the words of Samuel: “You Lord are my lamp. The Lord turns my darkness into light.”