If I Had a Million Dollars

In the morning I participated in the service at the Squaw Valley Chapel. Joy, joy, joy. All joy. So much skiing history there. It was built in 1959 for the Olympic athletes and spectators — a time when one could simply stand beside the skating rink and watch the competitors spin and salchow. A kinder, gentler and probably a lot more fun time in Olympic history.

I met a man who was part of the team who built the chapel. He has lived in the valley there most of his life; he coached the ski team for several years; at 80 he’s still out there taking runs. Glorious.

Pastor James and I had so much fun making an impromptu sermon together, talking about the condition of exile—Jeremiah 9, one of my favorites. Because of the parabolic shape of the chapel, the acoustics are tremendous. We sang like heavenly angels.

Several people said afterwards … you belong here … come back soon.

It felt like a version of home.

After a sunny outdoor breakfast with Sam I headed west and then north, with no real plan, nothing set at all. I was headed for Davis where I had a place to stay but was inclined to turn north toward Chico and went with it.

I was hungry and tired when I got to town so I stopped at the first In-N-Out Burger I saw. There was evidence of the fire everywhere: in the trucks and emergency response vehicles in the parking lots; in the completely full hotels, in the large crowd at the hamburger joint.

I walked up to place my order and sitting there on the counter was a dime. If you know me, if you know any of my stories, you know about the dimes. “Thank you, Matthew, “ I said quietly.

I noticed a bunch of tents on a patch of grass nearby when I was pulling out of the parking lot, so I turned and went in that direction and realized that I had parked beside the Walmart. Back east whenever anyone talked about the Camp Fire situation they inevitably mentioned that “they’re living in the Walmart parking lot,” which I saw now was partly true. They’re living in the parking lot and in the giant field beside the parking lot and in their cars and campers.

I was astounded; suddenly it was all very real. It felt like I was at a Dead show without any of the joy, any of the anticipation. Only sorrow, only loss; exile. As I was leaving I passed a family: man and woman, two small children, sitting beside a small camper, piles of clothing and bags of who knows what on the ground. The woman and I made eye contact that didn’t break as I drove by. Time slowed way down.

I thought of the time the kids and I delivered supplies to the homeless shelter in Burlington and I asked Nate how it felt: “Sad because I get to leave and they have to stay.”

In that moment I wished for a million dollars so I could feed and house all of them. I hated that I had somewhere to go. I hated that we live in a world of plenty and those people are living in tents and cars with no idea when it will end, where they will go.

I hate that everyone’s thoughts have turned from one holiday of excess to the next already. I hate that tomorrow almost everyone will wake up and have forgotten about the fires. Old news already, business as usual.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not opposed to joy, I’m not. I want for us to be happy, to celebrate life, to be together. But I want for all this suffering to end, too. Because we have the means; there is no excuse. When most of us have more than we need, then hunger and homelessness and the loneliness and fear that accompany them should be eradicated.

I don’t know what tomorrow will bring. I have a camera. I have some time; I’m good at hugging and listening. I don’t have much to offer, just my own life. But let me tell you, many days it’s enough. I hope you will find ways to put yours to good use as we head deeper into the season of consumer madness. Step outside of it, please, today, and help someone. Amen.

  Chico Walmart.

Chico Walmart.