Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Lessons from the Westmont College fire

I was sad to hear last week of the fire at Westmont College that destroyed several buildings there. It was a real-life exercise of the hypothetical question, "If your house was on fire, what would you rescue?" One report mentioned that student Beth Lazor only had time to grab her cell phone, laptop, teddy bear and debit card.

What's been interesting is that the whole experience has made the Westmont community reevaluate their relationship to their stuff. Admissions counselor Todd Pulliam was cited as saying, "I definitely lost a lot of stuff, but in the grand scheme of things it's nothing. I told God I wanted to simplify my life—and he's done it."

Stacey Torigoe, a staff writer for the student newspaper, offered these reflections:

When I heard the order to evacuate to the gym, I was going to sax quartet rehearsal. The only things that I’d been able to save were whatever I was carrying at the time: my precious alto sax and music, my cell phone and the clothes on my back. Hence the “homeless musician,” a label courtesy of my dear sister.

But I’m not planning on panhandling on State Street; I work strictly with ensembles. Maybe someday Jeff and I will get together and play duets, but for now, I’ll worry about whether my favorite jeans have gone up in flames or been soaked into oblivion (or both), along with, of course, my hiking boots and my pictures of home. As a Hawaiian, I long for a rain-soaked embrace after this scorching inferno.

It’s a strange feeling, to be homeless. Yes, I’m sad about losing things - my computer, for example, with irreplaceable pictures of memories that I’ve made at Westmont, my Spam musubi mold and my new hiking boots. Now I’m here in a hotel room downtown with my mom.

It’s a lesson in materialism, long overdue. While going through mental lists of what I lost and trying to figure out what can be replaced, I am constantly reminded of the fact that no matter how precious, none of the stuff in M102 was ever really mine - it was God’s. Even the clothes on my back that I escaped with were never really mine - and they still aren’t. They’re a gift, and they were given - and, by grace, taken away - for a reason.

There's a wisdom and maturity in these reflections. Westmont College is one of the most expensive Christian colleges in the country, and the surrounding area is extremely affluent, where celebrities live in multi-million-dollar homes. (Because of the high cost of housing, Westmont had built on-campus faculty residences so professors could afford to live there, and a number of those residences were destroyed in the fire, meaning that some professors lost both their homes and offices.) This is a community that has had to live in uneasy tension with materialism and wealth. Some students are children of privilege; others are not as well-to-do. But now all of them are rediscovering that material things are not what's most important in life. That's something all of us should remember.


jcubsdad said...

My co-worker and I were talking this morning and her daughter goes to Westmont. I asked how her daughter was feeling and her one response was "sober"

She got a wake up call, her dorm was safe, but so much was not. She is now rooming 5 to a room for two, and grateful for it.

Tim Liu said...

Other people I know who have been through fires have made similar comments, that losing all their things was freeing in a way. Interesting.

Anonymous said...

It really enforces the fact that "it only takes one tragedy to make you homeless." I'm glad to hear that the folks affected are taking it with such grace.