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Oso Landslide: The Spirit of Service

September 22, 2014

Pastor Gary Ray helps a fiercely independent community find strength to ask for help. 

The sun shines through a cross shaped window of the Restoration Church in Camano Island, 27 miles west of Oso.  As congregants bow their heads, Pastor Gary Ray opens with a prayer: "And we trust You for a grace and a mercy to allows us to go forth, knowing that in You there is help and hope."  Six months earlier, Pastor Gary Ray served at the Oso Community Chapel, where the spiritiual leader found himself needing to attend to the physical realities of the aftermath of a tragedy; he became a bridge between the many people trying to help and those who needed hope.

A dark cloud covers a marred hillside, remnants of car debris lie on the ground.  A flower-strewn cross stands outside the chapel, a memorial to the 43 people who died.  The signs of a disaster remain from March 22nd, 2014, when a massive landslide obliterated an entire hillside and the Steelhead Community of Oso.  Amidst attending to the spiritual needs of his community and family, Pastor Gary Ray recalls, he also became central in handling the outpouring of donations, with everything from furniture to homemade sack lunches lining the tiny Oso Chapel from wall to wall.

Pastor Gary Ray notes that in a town like Oso where there is very little infrastructure, people are incredibly self reliant.  With a fierce sense of strength and independence, residents came to their pastor first, and through him accessed the needed services from government and outside groups.  "My role is to help people feel comfortable enough to share their story, with a caseworker or a navigator, so that their needs can be met."

As Pastor Gary Ray sings a song about holding on through the storm, he reflects on the impact of the tragedy on his faith.  "It hasn't shaken my faith.  There are low points, points when you think there is no way out and no hope, but there is. God is there and He will provide comfort and what we need to see each other through.  And I think that's why we're brought together through those difficult times, and in the end we'll see the light." 



Made possible in part by


Aileen Imperial

Aileen Imperial is a multimedia and documentary producer with a commitment to thoughtful observation and engagement. Her work has aired nationally on the PBS American Masters series, PBS NewsHour, and she is a 4-time Emmy winner for feature videos in the Arts, Culture, and Human Interest. Find her on Twitter: @imperealize

More stories by Aileen Imperial

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How strange that Gary Ray is still acting like he is a part of Oso Community Chapel and the Oso Community. When the slide hit, Gary Ray had already left the Oso Community Chapel and the Oso Community in his heart, if he had actually ever been a part of it. He was headed for Camano Is. and the slide did not deter that goal which he continued to work toward and promote in the midst of the Oso tragedy to the mystification of many of us in the Oso Chapel congregation and board. During the slide he was only at the Oso firehall one time. If you ask people in Oso who Gary Ray is few will know. They know "Chappy", Joel Johnson, who was at the slide site daily while the recovery was going on, digging right along side the first responders and serving at the firehall making himself available for the firemen to the point that they hired him as the first chaplain the Oso Firehall ever hired. If he is so connected why was he not up here for the 6 month memorial? When he resigned Gary Ray was asked to return the Oso Chapel email account which he has to date refused to do. It makes me wonder, why is Gary Ray still trying to capitalize off of the tragedy in Oso and the Oso Community Chapel name?

while I certainly cannot speak to the firehall and its hiring of Joel Johnson as the chaplian, I can speak to the many months of weekly meetings that Pastor Gary attended as he worked tirelessly with others from the Faith Based and Voluntary Agency Community to find ways to develop a strategy for Long Tem Recovery. Those impacts that will continue for many years not just those first weeks or even months. It is a challenge for any community to identify the people who might be able to work in coordination, collaboration, cooperation and communication. Pastors such as Pastor Gary and so many others who are unseen here are the fundamental foundation of individual recovery, this is accomplished at great expense as they too are human.
My hat is off to all those who came together without bias and combined efforts to create a group that was able to meet the needs of the greater whole and of the multiple communities of Darington, Oso and Arlington.

I'm so sad to see the comments from GIB. I've known Gary Ray for the past 15 years and if I can say anything about him it is that he seeks to serve God where ever he is placed. I know that his family was greatly impacted by the slide and together they sought to serve their community. I can't speak to anything that went on at Oso Chapel but I know that Gary's heart is always to serve God first.