Rev. Donalee Williams is on the phone, speaking with me from the offices of Alberta and Northwest Conference in Edmonton. It has been a week since Williams, her spouse and four cats were forced to flee their fire-threatened home in Fort McMurray.
She sounds tired. It has taken me a little while to track her down. Now that we’ve finally connected, words fail me. What do you say to someone whose world has been turned upside down?
Williams, minister of Fort McMurray First United, is a former news-radio broadcaster and seems to sense my uneasiness. She’s gracious, thoughtful and forthright as she answers my questions.
She recalls the chaos, confusion and fear of the May 3 evacuation. Before fleeing, Williams assembled as many email addresses and phone numbers for her 80-member congregation as possible. With her husband driving and their cats fretting in the backseat, Williams began texting and emailing parishioners as they made the long, slow, anxious ride out of danger. She also began the first of daily Facebook posts in an effort to keep connected to the congregation. At 9:13 p.m. that evening, she wrote, “Heading south on Highway 63. It’s a crawl — not sure where we will end up.” It turned out to be the home of friends in Athabasca, 300 kilometres to the south.
A week later, she ascertained that First United is intact, her own home mostly unscathed and, as best as anyone could tell, most of the congregation have homes they can eventually go back to. But she still hasn’t been able to track down everyone. Her flock has literally scattered across the country. Many of those whom she has contacted are still reeling. “I’m not sure this is something that can be fully processed yet,” she says. “For many people right now, the question is, ‘Where are we going to live? Where are the kids going to go to school?’”
Prayers, videos and messages of support from across the country help to keep evacuees’ spirits strong. “I don’t think there’s anyone in Fort McMurray who doesn’t know they are being prayed for right now,” says Williams.
Still, there’s a gnawing sense that more than property has been lost in this disaster. The fire has shown that the certitudes that sustain us — the roofs over our heads, the food on our tables, the communities that strengthen us — are not as inviolable as we might imagine. The wind shifts the wrong way, and it can all turn to ash. “We cling to certainty at our peril,” Williams observes. “This doesn’t mean we need to walk around stressed all the time, thinking about what could happen in the next minute or next hour. But I think certainty can be problematic sometimes.”
About a month after we talked, evacuees finally began returning to Fort McMurray. Much will have changed when Williams and her congregation eventually gather again under the same roof at First United. The pastoral challenges in this strong but wounded community are daunting. “We are looking at major shift in the work and mission of our congregation,” she says, adding, “It’s going to be a marathon, not a sprint.”
• Patricia Clarke of Toronto began working for The Observer in 1965. She officially retired in 1980, but began editing the magazine’s Letters section in the mid-1990s, a task she continues to perform to this day as a volunteer. Clarke’s contributions were formally recognized during the recent Magazines Canada convention in Toronto when she was named Magazines Ontario Volunteer of the Year. On behalf of everyone connected with The Observer, past and present — congratulations, Pat, and many thanks.