Northern California “darkness” challenges churches

By Karen Willoughby on January 02, 2017

HUMBOLDT COUNTY — The darkness doesn’t come just from soaring Redwood trees, towering Douglas Firs and coastal fog, all of which block the sun.

It’s a darkness that seeps up from the fertile soil, coupled with near-perfect growing conditions: temperature, rain and then lack of rain at just the right time of year; and even the right mix of sun and shade.

“Humboldt County, southern Humboldt, is the Mecca for the growing marijuana industry,” said Dave Seaford, pastor of First Baptist Church in Redway (see additional story). “The environment, soil and rain are perfect for it, and the corporate marijuana growers are finding a political climate that is receiving them with open arms.

“People in New York like the product produced in southern Humboldt,” Seaford continued. “It has a high content of THC, which gives the high, and people on the East Coast, like everywhere these days, are looking for the high.

“Cannabis is the part (of the plant) they say has a medicinal basis. There’s not a better place in the United States to grow marijuana than southern Humboldt. And, I am told, southern Humboldt is second only in the world to one place in South America.”

The lure of high-grade marijuana to be found in a remote forested part of California, (far from judgmental eyes) combined with lucrative seasonal jobs trimming THC-laden buds in the industry, unemployment in the area’s traditional timber and logging industries, and a dearth of law enforcement stoke a prevalence toward crime.

Humboldt County’s per-capita crime rate leads California. Using statistics gleaned from official state tallies, a national online news service reported last February: “Crime has steadily declined in the United States and the State of California since 2004.

But the decline in Humboldt County crime reversed after 2010, and has returned to about the same rate as 2004. As a result, there were 341.9 violent crimes per 100,000 residents and 3,251.2 property crimes per 100,000 residents over the last decade.”

Those figures are about double the rate of Los Angeles, according to Open Justice, an official California government website.

Southern Baptists first came to the North Coast in 1949. Today, the 18 churches in the counties of Humboldt and Del Norte (which abuts the Oregon border) join to form North Coast Baptist Association, established in 1953, where the director of missions since 2009 is Larry McCain. He came to the area in 1958 to start a church in Ferndale, and later served at Westhaven Baptist Church near Trinidad and Myrtle Avenue Baptist (now Harvest) in Eureka before he went to Trinity Baptist in Arcata for 36 years.

“I will do the same for others that was done for me,” McCain said about his desire to see pastors/church planters God calls to the North Coast. “I will provide housing until they can get a place of their own, help them get a job to make a living and help them start or replant a church.”

Finding a job will be more difficult now — McCain recommends people called to ministry also get a teaching credential because it opens doors in the community — than it was when he arrived. The first seven years he worked in a plywood mill, where he made more money than if he had stayed in Texas, said the DOM who now receives health insurance and travel expenses as his pay.

Three years before McCain’s arrival, 1955, was the peak year for the timber and logging industries in the state. A total of 6 billion board feet was harvested, and 77 percent of it came from Northern California. It was all downhill from there.

Remember 1955? That’s when women dressed for dinner before their husbands came home from work. They also sat on the lawn weekends, wearing rollers in their hair, watching as their “shade tree mechanic” husbands tinkered with cars.

That era passed with a steady decline in the timber and logging industries, which overlapped in the mid-1960s with the arrival of anti-establishment rebels some would call “hippies” fleeing over-populated San Francisco for the self-sufficiency of the forest lands in Humboldt County.

“Some of them came to Christ while here,” McCain said.

They had little interest in gainful employment, so there was no conflict with long-time residents scrabbling for fewer and fewer jobs. The infiltrators did tend to “puff the magic dragon” and to grow a few plants in scattered locations, but their resultant somnolence also aroused no concern about competition for jobs.

Like the frog that jumps into a pot and gets used to the warming water until it begins boiling, so did many North Coast Christians not see the cauldron they were living in until they realized their serene conservative lifestyle had been nearly conquered by outside forces of liberalism, extreme environmentalism and a drug culture run amok.

One example of the change is Humboldt State University, which had about 1,600 students when McCain was earning a teaching credential while working in plywood and growing a church. HSU now has more than 8,000 students, and though some previous professors were avowed Christians, today most tout a liberal, free-thinking perspective.

Humboldt County is a densely forested, mountainous and rural county geographically the size of the nation’s three smallest states put together, yet with fewer than 140,000 residents, McCain said. Most of the 40 percent of all remaining old growth Redwood forests are located within the county’s thousand square miles of public land.

But the haven for people wanting to escape “corporate America” for the beauty, serenity and lack of business in Humboldt County “has ruined the area in terms of both the ecology and the hopes of a peaceful rural lifestyle,” Dave Seaford noted.

“The bleed-off of the fertilizers and chemicals to make crops grow quickly and potently (in the three huge marijuana plantations and innumerable illegal operations) has immeasurably damaged the environment,” he explained. “The soil is damaged by the chemicals and the water is being siphoned out of the river for the production of the crops.

“The Eel River has about dried up,” Seaford said. “It’s gone from ... eight feet of water to four or five inches during the summer months, and in many places there is nothing but a dry river bed.”

People who wanted to get away from it all have now become part of the rat-race eager for the profit to be made from growing and selling marijuana, he added.

“The economic part of this is really an issue,” Seaford noted. “Groceries are extremely high. Housing is terribly high. ... There’s an awful lot of drugs. People smoke grass on the streets more than cigarettes, and I saw one young man shooting up heroin outside the post office recently. I’m very careful about letting my wife go out on the street.

“The illegal drug trade has increased significantly, and there’s a lack of policing,” he continued. “They have to come from Eureka, which is an hour away.”

But it’s spiritual needs that cause pastors greater anguish.

“We’re trying to figure out a way to reach those who are part of the industry,” Seaford said. “It’s a totally different worldview, where people don’t see the (marijuana) issue being a problem. They say, ‘I don’t do drugs,’ but then pull out their marijuana and begin smoking. To them, that’s less harmful than having a beer. ... And for the second-generation growers, that’s all they’ve ever known and thus it is their normal.”

Adding to the crunch are hundreds of “trimmigrants” who come to the area even from other countries to work a few months harvesting marijuana, making enough money that they don’t have to work the rest of the year.

“It’s not safe to walk in the forest anymore because growers protect their grows,” McCain added. “Pot has not created a real problem but it is an entry drug for other drugs,” he said, citing others who say methamphetamines and alcohol are the biggest crime-inducing problem.

McCain noted the association has the same problems that exist nationally: an aging membership in long-established churches that aren’t reaching young people.

He counters this with mention of three churches: First Baptist in Redway, where Seaford has led his congregation to have serious engagement with the community and the local prison population, and where baptisms are up 500 percent from before he arrived; Sunny Brae Church in Arcata, where Pastor Derk Schulze baptizes about 10 people a year and provides shelter on church property for those in need; and Chris Beard, who brought his wife and six youngsters two years ago to pastor Ridgewood Heights Church in Eureka. McCain also noted Harvest’s pregnancy care center ministry; the prison ministry of First Baptist Church in Crescent City; and the association’s largest church, New Heart Community in McKinleyville, where about 300 people participate in Sunday morning worship.

The 18 churches in the two-county association work together for mutual support and encouragement, McCain said. There is some discouragement, and two churches are without pastors — at least one of which needs a total restart — but most pastors and wives attended the association’s annual Christmas party, which McCain said is an indication they all enjoy fellowship and working together.

“This is a good area for education, a good area for retirees; lots of places to backpack and to fish,” McCain said. “Probably the largest industries are medical, education and tourism.

“There are strong Christian influences here that weren’t here when I got here in 1958.” (Look for more stories in this Northern California series in upcoming issues of the CSB.)

This Convention serves our culturally diverse congregations as we fulfill the Great Commandment and the Great Commission.