By Cynthia Mendoza, with Faith Hoyt
Adventist Firefighters Share Stories of Faith and Service
According to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire), over 8,300 wildfires in California had claimed over 4 million acres by October 2020. Of the thousands of firefighters putting their lives in danger to protect lives and property, some are church members within the Pacific Union Conference. How does their work impact their faith, and conversely, how does faith impact their work?
“When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze” (Isaiah 43:2, NIV). For firefighters, this promise from Isaiah is probably as real and literal as it gets.
Nate Garcia, who works for the Morongo Valley Fire in San Bernardino County, began his service in firefighting as a first responder for Napa County in 2007 while a student at Pacific Union College.
His desire to help and protect others began early in life. One day when he was 11, while riding bikes in the mountains, his sister fell when she collided with a friend. She sustained a big cut to the back of her head.
At that time, Garcia had just completed his Pathfinder honor in first aid. Putting what he knew into practice, he took off his shirt and socks to apply a pressure dressing. He then fixed the bikes to get his sister to safety and eventually the hospital. It was a scary experience, but Garcia was thankful that he knew what to do. The feeling stuck with him and informed his career and volunteer choices from that point on.
Garcia, a member of the Azure Hills church near Loma Linda, California, went on to graduate from PUC with a bachelor’s degree in business and an associate degree in emergency medical services.
“It’s a heavy weight knowing we’re going out to try to save someone’s life but that sometimes we can’t,” Garcia said about the sobering realities of working as a firefighter. “It’s important to acknowledge that there is something bigger than yourself and that you may not always have answers as to why certain things happen.”
Garcia admits that post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and the heavy mental and emotional toll of the job are very real, but he’s thankful for his faith and his supportive family to see him through.
“It takes lots of prayer and trusting in God,” he said. “But I truly believe firefighting is a calling like any other, and God will be with you.”
Macho Rosa, a member of the El Cajon church near San Diego, has been with the Wildland Fire of the U.S. Forest Service since 2002. He first became acquainted with firefighting through friends at church who volunteered for the California Conservation Corps. He got to know several organizations and lines of work within the corps, and he chose the U.S. Forest Service.
His interest in this line of work began early in life, too. He had a heartfelt desire to be of service to others and an affinity for physically demanding work, like mowing lawns and pulling weeds. But nothing prepared him for the demands of firefighting.
“Having grown up in the city, my perception of what they do was very different,” he said. “There is nothing as physically demanding, and it took some getting used to, but it has become second nature.”
One of the aspects of the job Rosa most enjoys is getting to know many different people—especially his fellow firefighters as they spend hours or days at a time on the truck going from call to call.
“You’re literally in a truck with the same people 14 days in dangerous situations,” he said. “There’s a brotherhood bond that allows for conversation about life and God.”
Rosa is thankful to have Friday and Sabbath off to enjoy time at church with his family and his church family, but he’s always willing to help when needed on the job.
“Fires don’t stop burning on Sabbath,” he said. “We are doing God’s work by helping protect people and property.”
Brendon Lew, who works for the Los Angeles Fire Department (LAFD), began his career in firefighting in 2002. At the time, he was working construction and other similar manual labor jobs and wasn’t necessarily looking for anything new, but God had other plans for him.
Lew, a member of The Place church in Newbury Park, California, realized that firefighting offered many different opportunities, beyond just fighting fires, that required skills and experience that he had learned early in life, such as digging ditches. As a trained paramedic, Lew enjoys this aspect of the job as well, which comprises a little over 80% of the calls received.
As much as he enjoys what he does, the work itself is very taxing, mentally and physically, which is where his faith comes into play.
“When I’m extremely tired and down, I know I can pray and God will help me,” Lew said. “My faith also helps me handle problems with His help, and I know He’s always there, day by day.”
That help is particularly needed when 24-hour shifts take a heavy toll on mind and body, including on home life. Lew is thankful for a supportive wife and family and a close-knit church family that prays for him and for the whole family.
He is also grateful that a flexible work schedule has allowed him to stay active at church, teaching junior high Sabbath School, running audio and livestream at The Place, or going on mission trips.
“Keep your life centered on God, no matter how bad days are,” he said about the source of his strength. “God is always there, and so is your church family.”
Mild-mannered university department head or fearless firefighter? Jonathan Bradley is both. When not working as the registrar at Pacific Union College (PUC), Bradley is busy fighting fires and occasionally rescuing cats from trees in his role as a volunteer firefighter for the Napa County Angwin Volunteer Fire Department.
“There’s a lot that I love about it,” he said. “I’ve always loved doing things to help people, and there are a variety of ways to help, not just fighting fires.”
Some of that variety includes medical assistance, attending to accidents, downed trees, and yes, even cat rescues. “That’s actually a thing sometimes,” Bradley confirmed.
In the PUC community, Bradley is certainly not alone in his unique religious beliefs, given that half the staff at the Angwin station are Adventist. No one asks why the staff celebrates positive media coverage with ice cream instead of beer, as is customary at most firehouses.
But on a deeper level, Bradley credits his personal faith in God as instrumental in giving him the peace of mind to do his job, even in dangerous situations.
“Where others are worried about safety, I’m less so,” he said. “Not just because I trust God will keep me safe, but because I am at peace with whatever happens, even if I’m not safe.”
The possibility of not being safe became a reality when Bradley was injured while fighting fires earlier in 2020. This has prevented him from helping fight the most current Glass Fire, which came dangerously close to PUC. Like others in the area, Bradley and his family had to evacuate. Because of his previous injury, he wasn’t able to help.
“It’s been a challenging time,” Bradley said about his confinement, when he’d rather be helping put out fires. “My wife is happier about it than I am.”
Cynthia Mendoza, a former journalist, is a freelance writer in Southern California; Faith Hoyt is assistant editor of the Recorder and editor of Newsdesk.