Imagine that you were asked to come up with a list of the most important and sentimental items you have in your home. Now, envision trying to gather that list in twenty short minutes. This is the exact scenario that Bobby and Stacey Saddler faced on Sunday, September 4, 2011 when they were forced to evacuate their home in order to escape the largest and most violent wildfire in Texas history.
The Saddlers were one of many families who lost their home to the relentless, raging blaze in Bastrop County. But, there is something that makes Bobby and Stacey unique. They are involved in the Victoria Diocese Engaged Encounter (EE) ministry and they kept their commitment as a presenting team on an EE weekend just four days after receiving word that their home was a total loss.
Bobby and Stacey have been involved in EE since 2008 and are big on giving back in areas they feel they’ll be most useful. For them, it’s more about following God’s will and being aware of their own strengths and limitations. They chose to “give back” and be involved with the Victoria EE because they loved their weekend experience as an engaged couple, along with the fact that Bobby grew up in this area.
I recently had the opportunity to communicate with Stacey through several late night e-mails. I’d like to share more of their special story with you. I asked Stacey what they were able to pack that eerie Sunday afternoon as the wind wildly danced outside their front door… “The only things we got out were one packed bag per family member (as though we were going on a short vacation), some important documents, our EE notebooks, and a box of photos.” Despite the devastation, Stacey still feels that they were “lucky,” because many of their friends were away that Labor Day weekend and weren’t able to salvage anything.
“By the time we drove out of our driveway, there were fire trucks driving down our street with lights flashing, smoke plumes billowing over our home, and the line to get out was backed up to our house (a mile into the neighborhood). It was like a scene out of an end-of-the-world-type movie. It was freaky, especially when you have a seven-year-old asking you tons of questions and looking to you for comfort. I was very afraid, but had to keep a strong face for her. I took some back roads to get around the traffic and as a mommy, I was determined to drive OVER houses if I had to, just to get my babies out of there.”
The Saddlers say there isn’t a day (or hour for that matter) that goes by that they don’t think of something that burned in their home. Stacey said that Bobby is probably most saddened about losing a growth chart they had started for their oldest daughter on a piece of trim in their sunroom in Houston. They had brought it along with them when they moved to Bastrop to mount and continue charting both of their daughters’ growth throughout the years. If only tears could have extinguished that fire…
For Stacey, it’s really not about the stuff so much, but more about the house itself. “I am kind of a homebody. I just love being in the comfort of my own home. I truly loved my home, so to lose that comfort has been difficult.” She has really had to learn to find her comfort in God because of this tragedy.
I asked them what exactly it was that made them decide to keep their commitment to the EE weekend. Stacey said, “By 1:00 pm on Monday, September 5th, I had received confirmation that our home was a total loss. As I started thinking about plans for that week and what all needed to be done, canceled, etc., I remembered we had EE that weekend. My first immediate thought was that there was no way we would go.”
Bobby and Stacey were able to take some time to talk on Tuesday. They were in absolute shock about the loss of their home and were overwhelmed. In the midst of their discussion, Bobby said, “I think we should go ahead and do EE this weekend.”
Stacey was stunned, but agreed after some thought. She said, “You’re right. There is nothing we can do in Bastrop right now and the best thing to do when you are so filled with sorrow that you don’t know what to do with yourself, is to go help someone else.”
Once the decision was made, Stacey said she experienced a sense of relief because she felt she had a purpose for that week beyond just sitting around feeling sorry for herself, her family and her friends (who also lost their homes). “It gets you out of yourself and puts you in God’s hands doing His work.” The Saddlers felt like the EE weekend was exactly where God needed and wanted them to be.
The main thing Bobby and Stacey were concerned about going into this particular EE weekend was that they didn’t want the weekend to focus in on them and the fires. They briefly mentioned their situation and welcomed the couples to talk to them during the breaks about anything (like they always do). They try to be an “open book” because they never know what part of what they share will resonate with an engaged couple on any given weekend. They wanted the main focus to remain on the engaged couples’ love for each other and building their commitment in the sacrament of marriage.
Bobby and Stacey were very surprised to find out that the engaged couples had actually received an e-mail before the EE weekend informing them of the Saddler’s situation. They came bearing donations of clothes for them and their daughters (as well as for their friends affected by the fire), toys, and gift cards. The Saddlers’ hearts swelled with thanks and gratitude at this unexpected gesture of thoughtfulness and generosity, especially since they had never met these couples until that weekend.
The Saddlers have been overwhelmed (in a good way) by all of the love and selflessness from their friends, family and especially from the wonderful people they’ve never even met. “One of the hardest lessons we have had to learn in all of this is how to receive. Bobby and I have always been on the giving end. When you enjoy being a giver, it is very hard to wake up one day and find yourself in need.”
Stacey said, “One of the things that I explained to Bobby when we first started receiving donations from people, was that God wants us to become humble enough to receive just as He wants us to be selfless enough to give. What that meant to us at the time was that we needed to accept the fact that we were at a place where we were truly in need (if only temporarily) and we needed to humble ourselves to accept others’ offerings with grace and gratitude.”
Bobby and Stacey have seen God’s hand at work through the remarkable people they have come in contact with throughout this ordeal. The outpouring of genuine care and love from “friends of friends of friends” is breath-taking. “This has strengthened our commitment to God and other people. We are so proud to be a part of this amazing human race. When it comes to hard times, God’s people really show up and it’s awesome!”
The Saddlers will forever hold a special place in their hearts for the extended EE family and the engaged couples present during that weekend. As always, they said they got just as much out of the EE weekend as the engaged couples attending it did.
For the Saddlers, one of the most memorable and heart-tugging moments during the EE weekend was when several of the couples approached them and shared that the Saddlers’ simply being there after such a tragedy completely changed the future of their marriage and the commitment they would make to each other. Can you imagine the joy? Someone’s mere PRESENCE changing another’s life…forever! Miraculous and awe-inspiring to say the very least.
When asking the Saddlers how they felt about the first trip back to their home after the fires, this is what they said… “We were allowed back in our neighborhood on Thursday, September 15th, nine days after it was declared a total loss. It was surreal and we were numb. The area looks as though it was air bombed and we have dubbed it ‘the war zone.’”
Where Bobby and Stacey’s home once stood, there is now only rubble, ashes and soot. Nothing to rummage through. Nothing. “There are so many mixed emotions – sadness, mourning, frustration, anger, excitement (the adrenaline/get-stuff-done kind-of-excitement), delirium, numbness and every other emotion under the sun.”
So much was lost because of the vicious, destructive, roaring wildfires.
But, ironically, much was gained.
A Texas Parks and Wildlife spokesman said of the Bastrop State Park, “Once it starts raining again, the pine trees will come back and it will probably be more verdant than ever before.” This makes me think of the Saddlers and the impact of that decision they made on Tuesday, September 6, 2011.
What was gained from that unselfish decision to attend the EE weekend, despite their recent loss? FAITH - An increased faith in God for the Saddlers and all those around them. COMMITMENT - An increased commitment to marriage in all of the lives touched by their presence during the EE weekend. LOVE - An increased love for all God’s people who step up to the plate in times of crisis to help, support, love and pray for those who need them.
There is no doubt in my mind that as love continues to rain down on the Saddlers from family, friends, the engaged couples and the EE family, they too will come back, like the pines, and be stronger than ever before! Thank you for your example of self-sacrifice, faith, commitment and couple love, Bobby and Stacey. Thank you.