June 29th, 2012
03:47 PM ET
By Dan Gilgoff, CNN.com Religion Editor
(CNN) – When it’s not in the news for historic wildfires that have devoured hundreds of homes on its outskirts, Colorado Springs, Colorado, is nationally known as the home of the Air Force Academy and as the unofficial capital of evangelical Christianity.
The Springs, as it's called locally, plays host to lots of global evangelical organizations, including Focus on the Family, Compassion International and the International Bible Society. The concentration has earned the city the nickname “Vatican West” among some evangelicals.
The city is also home to Ted Haggard, who once headed the National Association of Evangelicals and who presided over the biggest church in the state, until he was felled by a gay sex and drugs scandal in 2006. Two years ago, Haggard started a new church in town.
That city’s evangelical flavor has made for some distinctly religious responses to the flames, which by Friday had destroyed 346 homes and had forced more than 36,000 people to evacuate. The fire has charred 16,700 acres, with 20,000 homes and scores of businesses still at risk.
In the face of the flames, religion writer Patton Dodd, who lives in Colorado Springs, said he has witnessed “a reflexive ‘my house and things don't matter in the long run anyway’ spirituality,” among some evangelical neighbors and friends.
He has also seen doctored pictures of firefighters with Jesus on Facebook and “lots of ‘Jesus bring rain’ talk.”
When the temperature dropped in the area Thursday and Friday, helping firefighters contain 15% of the fire after 100-plus degree temperatures earlier this week, many evangelicals in the area chalked the better weather up to answered prayers.
“I saw so many Christians saying, ‘Please pray for rain, we need a miracle, and only God can provide it,' ” said Esther Fleece, director of millennial relations for Focus on the Family. “Even people who are not Christians were saying, ‘This is out of our control and I’m going to try to pray. Why not?’ ”
Earlier in the week, Fleece was packing up her two-bedroom condo in preparation of evacuation and faced the difficult choice of what to leave and what to take.
“I was packing and I realized that none of this matters,” Fleece said. “I just had to pause and say, ‘All of this could be replaced.’ What matters most is I have my family and my community and my faith, and we’re going to go through trials. They’re momentary.
“My heart goes out to those who don’t have faith and don’t have a larger narrative of why tragedies happen,” she continued. “The grief is so huge that it’s difficult to get through this without faith.”
Fleece did not wind up evacuating because her home was not deemed to be at risk. Now she has five other evacuees staying with her.
Around Colorado Springs, evangelical churches and ministries are partnering with local government on relief efforts and are taking advantage of their own Christian networks to help each other.
The city’s enormous New Life Church was expecting four semitrailers of food, water and other supplies to arrive Friday and Saturday, thanks to a Christian group Gleaning for World, led by Jonathan Falwell, son of the late Jerry Falwell.
“We have a huge opportunity to bless our city and region,” New Life pastor Brady Boyd wrote on New Life’s website. “We need help on Friday unloading these semi-trailers.”
Focus on the Family is housing dozens of staffers from Navigators, a global Christian ministry that evacuated its headquarters this week because of the fires.
According to a post on Navigators' site, the group’s U.S. president was sharing Psalm 91 with other workers in the temporary Focus space:
Dodd, the Christian writer, said he’s seen some ugly political posturing around the fires, with some conservatives alleging President Barack Obama is to blame for an insufficient response because he allegedly cut money for the federal fleet of air tankers.
The allegation “Isn't so much evangelical as Republican, but you know how those lines can be blurred,” he said.
Obama visited Colorado Springs on Friday to take stock of the fires and the response.
Some recent messages on Twitter, meanwhile, are using the fires to take aim at Focus on the Family, known for its conservative stances on issues such as gay marriage.
“If this Colorado fire takes out the Focus on the Family campus, then God really exists,” read one such message, which was highlighted by conservative pundit Michelle Malkin, who lives in Colorado Springs.
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