I couldn’t sleep Sunday night. I was at the end of a fabulous read and continued turning pages to find the conclusion. My head ached a bit and I could not stop thinking about the candle in the kids’ bathroom. Had they blown it out?
I would dismiss the concern and go back to my book, but the flame of the candle was very present in my mind.
Finally around 2:45AM, I put the completed book down and went to double check the candle. The children had obediently blown it out as directed. I was thankful and headed back to my pillow to find sleep. Jeff had been resting for about 45 minutes and I could tell by his breathing that deep sleep had found him. I closed my eyes in the stillness but could not drift off.
Just after 3AM, my phone beeped that a text message had come through. I did not get up immediately, wondering what meandering text was finding me at so early an hour. I was still wide awake though, and Jeff asked about the noise, so I got up to check the message.
My heart began to race as I saw the Johnson’s name (missionaries with World Harvest Mission in Bundibugyo) on the message and not the Sports Report on soccer scores I expected to quickly delete and go back to bed.
It seemed to take forever for the message to display. The first sentence read,
“The Chedester’s house in on fire….”
I called Jeff’s name and read the alarming words. My husband stood up immediately from the bed and said, “I’m going.”
He was in gear and out the door before I could find a sweater and shoes.
I handed him Kinley’s phone and kissed him goodbye, then began to pray.
My heart was pounding, but there was silence and stillness around me. The house, vacated by the Chedester family two years ago was to be the new home for their teammate and our dear friend, Pat Abbott. I was not aware of anyone sleeping in the home currently, but did not know for sure.
I knew Jeff would not be able to call me, but I longed for information and prayed for the safety of everyone on the scene.
After two and half hours, my phone rang and Jeff’s voice told me everyone was safe, but the house had been destroyed.
He was winded as he talked and heartbroken that he couldn’t save the house. He said that as he drove up to the house several hours ago, every room already glowed red.
He had arrived at the same time as the fire truck from town. (The fire truck is a new addition to the Ft Portal community. Jeff has petitioned for fire services, gathered fire gear and taught fire safety for many years. We currently await funds to ship a donated fire truck from the States.) There were two men with the truck who eagerly accepted Jeff’s offer of help. They entered the house with a hose and fought the fire, working to quiet the hot spots as the flames died down.
Jeff said that he was coming home to refresh, call Bundibugyo and that we could return at daybreak to begin salvaging what we could.
His call to the Johnson’s was short. We were all shocked and sad.
Jeff’s adrenaline was still pumping full as he relived the firefight and I made him tea. How many times we’ve played this scenario. He paces the kitchen telling me every detail he can recall from the latest happening. I stand over the kettle, praying and praising and beseeching our Father who never fails.
As I found clothes and thick soled boots, Jeff showered, changed into new gear and found gloves and tools we might need. My heart weighed so heavy.
With every prayer a plea for us to find that which would matter to Pat Abbott. Her belongings filled the home in preparation for a new life and ministry in Ft Portal. She has lived in Uganda 17 years and so her history had awaited her home-leave return in plastic trunks, suitcases and boxes.
I knew we needed to talk to the Chedesters too. And my heart broke for them. We watched them plan and birth this home from the grading of the land to the foundation to every detail Bob meticulously toiled through. This would be an emotional loss and I hated that pain for them already.
The house felt like an oven when we entered. The ground was charcoal and ashes. Some places even glowed red where heat smoldered. The walls could not be touched and standing within the walls had the effect of a sauna.
We started in the office. Jeff quickly uncovered, beneath the ashes, some melted stacks of pictures. We were encouraged to find something. I put on my gloves and began to gingerly sort through the charcoal and ashes at my feet.
Cards, letters, the charred remains of books. We made stacks of what we might salvage and laid aside that which was unidentifiable.
With every sifting a prayer. ‘Lord show us what matters to Pat and help us know what to keep. Protect the precious things from looters. Help us, here.’ As we dug, I pictured the room as it was when the Cheds lived here. We wrote emails at the desk in the alcove when our computer broke or phone was down, Bob and Jen served their team with countless administrative tasks in this space, and once during a dinner party I found one of our baby boys (Alex?) swallowing Uncle Bob’s pills on the floor of this room. Alex was fine, but we spent some tense minutes assessing the situation here.
Jeff found more and more letters and cards. Our stack of salvageable grew. We uncovered a few clay pots and some cast iron pans.
People were walking into the home now. We had a constant audience. Everyone expressed sadness, but there was hunger in their eyes. I was disheartened by this; this trait of taking from those who have already lost so much. Jeff and I started announcing as we worked that we were saving these things for the owner. We spoke warnings about the hot coals and encouraged people to wait outside. Children from the school walked in bare feet around the house. I pointed out all the shattered glass and asked them to please return to school. A teacher finally took up my cause and shooed the children away.
We dug. And I remembered.
So many celebrations took place in these walls. So many conversations. So many memories. Bob and Jennifer welcomed into their name, heart and family six children here in this space. They housed and nurtured many more.
I remembered the decisions, choices, hard labor spent on each detail of this home. It was used well. To the glory of the Lord.
We have dutifully recorded many of those moments with cameras through the years. But on this morning, when I pulled out my camera, I recorded a loss and it felt very opposing to me.
Picture taking is most often a celebratory practice. Christmas, birthdays, baptisms, marking the growth of family.
This moment was quite the opposite emotion. Each snap felt heavily somber. But I reminded myself that the pictures would be helpful and continued to record the scene.
In yet another irony of life in this place, I hated this moment, and felt equally grateful to be there for our friends. To mark this passing with tears of remembrance. Of honor.
We worked for a couple of hours. Jeff continued putting out flames that would emerge from the coals at our feet. We dug, we salvaged, we prayed.
I was loading a scarred load of Pat’s history into the car when Jeff came out carrying two books. They looked almost clean compared to the soot that now covered everything else. Jim Elliots journals and a book titled “He Has Made Me Glad”. We smiled and chuckled amazement at God’s hand clearly redeeming this moment. Jeff flipped through the books and pulled an unsinged postcard from the inside pages. Bwamba Road. An aerial shot of the road to Bundibugyo, where Pat and a World Harvest Mission team have worked for many years.
It would not be the only thing unsinged, but it would be one of few.
After lengthy discussions with Pastor Sam, and a phone call with Bob Chedester we headed back home, our bodies, awake all night, now hungering for sleep.
We shared the news with our children and the Goodes and then succumbed to slumber. After resting, we spent the evening spreading out the documents and pictures we had found. Carefully cleaning and separating, praying that the few things would be a comfort to Pat.
We peeled pictures away from stacks, spread and dried papers. The next morning, Jeff was out early to remove the solar panels from the roof so they could be stored. Just as I left our home to join him at the house, I received an email from Pat. There was one document she asked us to look for.
When I reached the house, I could see Jeff had been uncovering more papers and had a large stack in the back of the car. I quickly described the document she needed and he told me he hadn’t found it. This was now two days after the fire.
We went into the office, and I asked God, out loud, to please take us to the document if it was still there. Jeff bent down, explaining to the Goodes, “it will be similar in color to (pause) this,” and pulled out the document! Praise the Lord. It was badly damaged but some marks were legible enough for her to use the form for what she needed.
It has been a week now. Our living room, full of papers and pictures still drying, smells like fire. Pat and the Chedesters are all doing well, full of God provided faith and coping with the loss.
Pat wrote on her blog of beauty from ashes. Only time will tell the losses Pat will number as she resettles here. But it moves me to look at what God mercifully allowed us to find:
pictures and letters from Pat’s Mom, pictures and cards from Pat’s team, documents for Kim and Lydia, an aerial shot of the road to Bundibugyo, three books: Jim Elliot’s journals, “He Has Made me Glad”, and The Art of Christian Healing.
A solid representation of some of the richest beauty of Pat’s life: family, team, daughters, mission, ministry, Christ.
This world is not our home. I am honored to serve alongside others who can celebrate that truth even from the ashes of loss.
Blessed be the name of the Lord!