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SANTA ROSA, Calif. — Emotion overcame Elder Ronald A. Rasband Saturday moments after he began speaking with a small group of Mormons at the edge of the charred remains that had once been their homes.
Perhaps the visceral combination of surveying the vast destruction while simultaneously hearing the homeowners’ accounts of escaping the Oct. 9 wildfire with little more than their lives drew out the tears.
Before long, Elder Rasband’s wife, Sister Melanie Rasband, was dabbing her own eyes with one hand. She wrapped her free arm around a woman who is counted among the thousands who lost their homes to the recent fires of northern California.
Saturday was the first time the Rasbands had met the Latter-day Saints who lost their homes in the Tubbs Fire. “But these are my brothers and sisters,” Elder Rasband said.
Shedding a few tears with his new friends, he added, “just felt so natural … the gospel made our relationship immediate.”
A member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saint’s Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, Elder Rasband had been scheduled for several months to visit northern California on the last weekend of October to participate in a religious liberties conference.
But the church leader said he’s certain God also wanted him in the Golden State at this moment to be with the many who were suffering following the entirely unexpected and devastating wildfires.
Joining the Rasbands on their Saturday tour of what was once the attractive Coffey Park neighborhood was the church’s Primary general president, Sister Joy Jones, and her husband, Brother Robert Jones.
The Joneses didn’t really need an escort to get around Santa Rosa. They know the area well. They called the Sonoma County city their home for 14 years during the 1980s and ’90s.
“It’s tender to see the destruction,” Sister Jones said, “but it’s so strengthening to be with (these) people and feel their power.”
Bishop Alan Darrimon has performed a challenging balancing act over the past few weeks. He presides over the Peterson Lane Ward, a congregation with some 40 families who lost their homes. He’s served as a shepherd and spiritual leader to dozens forever impacted by the fires. But the bishop and his wife, Veronica, are also victims. The flames claimed their home.
Being able to share his experiences and feelings with a visitor he sustains as an apostle of Christ made for an unforgettable Saturday morning. Spending a few moments with Elder Rasband “was just awesome,” he said.
His wife, Veronica Darrimon, called the visits from the Rasbands and the Joneses “a great honor.”
“For them to come and have this experience with us is really appreciated,” she said.
Dr. Kimberly Gordacan, a Coffey Park resident and fellow Mormon, said the displays of care by Elder Rasband and the others is emblematic of the love she’s received from the moment her home was incinerated.
“I knew I was never alone,” she said. “My house isn’t what’s most important. I have the gospel.”
A few moments before leaving the neighborhood, Elder Rasband joined the small group for an outdoor prayer. He mentioned each person in the impromptu prayer circle by name. And he thanked God that no members had been killed or seriously injured in the fire.
Moments later, he acknowledged the dozens who had died in the disaster. “Our deepest thoughts go out to them and their families,” he said.
Shortly before leaving the disaster zone, Elder Rasband was asked what words he would share if it were possible to speak to everyone whose life had been forever changed by the northern California wildfires.
“I would share this message from the First Presidency and the Twelve: First, we love you. Second, we’re praying for you. And third, we’re so grateful for everyone who is helping you.”
Elder Rasband presided at a devotional on Friday for fire-weary members of the Santa Rosa California Stake. He’s expected to participate in a gathering Sunday with other fire victims from the Marysville community in California’s Yuba County.
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