PARADISE, Calif. — Two months after the Camp Fire savagely claimed an entire community here, President Russell M. Nelson surveyed the ashes of Paradise on Sunday and spoke to the community’s Latter-day Saint residents about loss — his and theirs.
“We can hardly comprehend the tragic losses that you have sustained — loss of life, loss of homes, loss of jobs, work places, and much, much, more,” said the leader of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints during a special conference held for members of the Chico California Stake, which includes two units in Paradise. “The accounts of your suffering are exceeded only by the accounts of your ministering.”
President Nelson’s words were delivered just two days after the death of his daughter, Wendy Nelson Maxfield, to cancer.
“We mourn the loss of our second daughter,” said an emotional President Nelson in an interview after surveying the ashes of Paradise. “Fathers can’t have that without feeling a deep sense of grief. And yet there is nothing we would rather do than to try to be of help to others.”
His example of care for others resonated with Latter-day Saints in Paradise, who also found peace and hope in the service of others after fire destroyed their community on Nov. 9.
“You learn that everyone has challenges,” President Nelson said. “If you want to feel better, forget about yourself and serve someone else.”
‘We have come to minister’
The deadliest and most destructive wildfire in California history, Camp Fire raced through Paradise the morning of Nov. 8, leaving 88 dead and destroying 18,804 structures.
In the days after the disaster, more than 12,000 community members received some service from members of the Chico California Stake. In many cases the service was rendered by those who had also lost their homes, which included 95 percent of the Paradise 1st Ward.
Rob and Gretchen Harrison and their three children walked with President Nelson around the remains of their home. Rob Harrison is bishop of the Paradise 1st Ward.
“These people are acting just like the Lord would act were He here,” said President Nelson as he visited the Harrisons. “There are challenges, but with faith — keeping the commandments and knowing that God’s in charge — all will be well in the long run.”
President Nelson shared the same message with the thousands of Latter-day Saints gathered in the Chico California Stake Center. “We care about you. We care for you, and we love you,” he said.
“We have come to minister unto you. We want to bring you hope. I know the Lord has been guiding you in your efforts to recover and move forward in faith.”
President Nelson was joined at the stake conference and on the visit to Paradise by his wife, Sister Wendy Nelson, and by Elder Kevin W. Pearson, a General Authority Seventy who spent three days in Paradise after the fire, and his wife, Sister June L. Pearson.
During his remarks, President Nelson said the Old Testament Prophet Isaiah likened the righteous who mourn —"including you heroic brothers and sisters” — to trees of righteousness planted by God.
“Your hope, your joy, and your future will all be shaped by your faith in God, and by your faith in the Lord Jesus Christ,” he said.
For example, President Nelson recounted the story of Horatio Spafford, a real estate investor who lost a fortune in the great Chicago fire of 1871. After his 4-year-old son died of scarlet fever, Horatio sent his wife and four daughters to England, thinking a vacation would do the family good. Before he could join them, however, Horatio received word from his wife that the ship had sunk and claimed their daughters. “Saved alone,” she wrote. “What shall I do?”
President Nelson said Horatio immediately set sail for England. As he passed over the spot where the shipwreck had occurred, he wrote down the words of comfort and hope that filled his mind. Those words became the text for the hymn, “It Is Well with My Soul.”
After President Nelson’s remarks the choir performed the hymn with a special addition — a concluding verse written by Sister Nelson for the congregation.
“My future is bright, as my covenants I keep,
My covenants with God give me power
To rise from the ashes and grief of the past,
Praise the Lord, Praise the Lord, o my soul.”
Times of loss
Sister Nelson told the congregation that she and President Nelson “already love you and we honor you for your great faith that you are showing in the midst of your devastating losses.”
Church leaders, she said, have learned of “your losses, your ministering to each other, your miracles and your faith.”
“My husband and I understand loss,” said Sister Nelson, noting that just 40 hours earlier they had learned that President Nelson’s daughter had “slipped through the veil to join her mother, Dantzel, and her sister, Emily.”
“In the midst of heart-wrenching loss it is natural for our souls to long for things to be the way they used to be,” she said. “When we realize that that simply is not possible, we seek for those things that will never change. We seek for what we can really count on, for what we can hold on to. We search for what is real.”
The truths of the restored gospel of Jesus Christ are never sweeter than in times of loss, she added. “No one can ever take away from us that the only begotten son of God, Jesus Christ, is truly our redeemer, our healer. How anchoring it is to know that the commandments will never change and that our covenants, if we live worthy, will always give us access to God’s power. What else can we count on? What else is really true?
“Today my brothers and sisters, my message is that you can count on that.”
A sign from Heavenly Father
Elder Pearson told the congregation that they have been in his thoughts and in his prayers continuously following his visit to Paradise in the days after the fire. “The stake truly became a defense and a refuge for the entire community…,” he said. “Your collective light, brothers and sisters, has been and continues to be a beacon of hope and the evidence of true discipleship of the Lord Jesus Christ.”
Elder Pearson called President Nelson’s presence at the Chico stake conference a sign from Heavenly Father and the Savior.
“Today is an answer to your prayers, evidence they are listening to your heartfelt prayers and know of your needs. If you listen carefully with your hearts you will hear their voices and feel their love for you, for each of you personally.”
Sister Pearson also promised the congregation that through personal revelation they would feel God’s love. She asked them to seek the companionship of the Holy Ghost. “You need the constant guidance of the Holy Ghost to be with you,” she said.
President John R. Meyer, Chico California Stake president, spoke of a note sent to the fire victims from a child in Manhattan. The note, accompanied by cute drawings, included the message: “When you love what you have, you have everything you need.”
President Meyer said the greatest evidence that mankind is created in the likeness of a loving Father in Heaven is found in the goodness of people.
A new temple
Before the stake conference, President Nelson greeted government and civic leaders during a short reception. One group included local leaders from Yuba City, located 40 miles outside of Chico.
President Nelson announced the church’s plans to build a temple in Yuba City, and 11 other locations worldwide, in the final moments of general conference on Oct. 7.
After visiting Chico and Paradise, speaking to Latter-day Saints from the broader community, and learning of the area's goodness in the face of trial, President Nelson said, “Now I feel better informed about what was behind the revelation that there should be a temple in Yuba City.”