“The Refining Fire,” Ensign, July 1996, 43
Robert J. Allen, president of the Chubbuck Idaho Stake, often looks at the needlework hanging in his office at church. Lovingly embroidered by his wife, Carol, the words, encircled with blue and mauve flowers, read, “Because I have been given much, I too must give.”
“The hymn brings back memories,” President Allen explains simply. “I know what I have been given, and I know the importance of giving back.”
Almost eight years ago on a bitterly cold January morning, Brother Allen was attending a fast and testimony meeting as part of his assignment as a high councilor. The closing song was “Because I Have Been Given Much” (Hymns, no. 219). Normally not an emotional man, Brother Allen found himself sobbing during the first verse of the song.
“For some reason, I was overwhelmed with a realization of my blessings,” he remembers. “It was as if my whole life passed before me. I thought of my wife and children, my parents, my sisters and relatives, and many others who had influenced my life.
“Then suddenly in the middle of this I felt the most beautiful feeling I had ever felt in my entire life,” President Allen continues. “It was as if Heavenly Father had literally put his arms around me and told me he loved me. It was a good thing that the congregation was singing so loudly, because if they hadn’t been, I’m sure they would have heard me crying.”
After the meeting, Brother Allen drove around for an hour, trying to comprehend the experience. Finally, though, he headed home, no closer to understanding but needing to take his own family to their Sunday meetings.
As Brother and Sister Allen sat in Sunday School class later that morning, a counselor in the bishopric opened the classroom door and motioned for Brother Allen. “I went out in the hall, and he told me my house was on fire,” Brother Allen says. “At first I thought he was joking, and I told him I was going back to class. But then I realized he was telling the truth.”
Brother and Sister Allen left their meetings and headed home, stopping only long enough to round up their two sons, Darrin and Shawn, and make arrangements for a relative to bring their two youngest daughters home. (The Allens’ second daughter was serving a mission, and three other daughters were living out of town.)
“On the way home, we told Darrin to go in and get our movie films. Shawn was assigned to gather up the photo albums,” Sister Allen remembers. “We assumed it was only a small, smoke-damage-type of fire.
“But when we pulled onto the little road leading to our home, we saw the driveway full of fire trucks,” she continues. “Fire officials had closed the road to regular traffic so that the fire trucks could get through. I sat in the car crying while Bob walked in to take a closer look.”
The fire, which had started from a wood stove in the basement, had engulfed the home, a 1,500-square-foot structure the Allen family had built themselves. Within hours, Bob and Carol Allen and their four youngest children lost everything they owned except the clothes they wore. More than 100 rolls of family movies and dozens of scrapbooks and journals were destroyed. The other children lost their childhood treasures and all the possessions they’d stored at their parents’ home.
“My son Darrin and I walked up to the house,” Brother Allen remembers, “and the most devastating, horrible feeling hit me. I realized that everything I had worked for over the last 24 years was going up in smoke. And then, just as suddenly, the beautiful feeling that I had experienced in fast and testimony meeting earlier that morning returned and I heard a voice whisper, ‘Everything will be all right.’
“I turned to Darrin, who was having a hard time choking back the tears. I put my arms around him and told him the same thing the voice had told me—everything will be all right.”
“It was scary,” remembers Anndrea, then in the ninth grade. “I was crying, and I didn’t know what was going to happen. But Dad came up to me and told me it didn’t matter, because everything we needed was safe, everything that really mattered we still had. Then he gave me a big hug and told me everything would be all right. I felt better immediately. I knew everything would be taken care of.”
Throughout the day Brother Allen would offer that same reassurance to his wife and each of his eight children, sharing his experience and his deep conviction that Heavenly Father knew them and would bless them and that the things that really mattered were safe. “Everything will be all right,” he promised.
As the Allens stood watching their home and possessions go up in flames, the giving began. Mike Norris, a ward member, was the first. He trudged down the snowy lane to the house and hugged Bob Allen. “He offered his sympathy,” Brother Allen recalls. “Then he put his hand in my pocket and said, ‘Don’t touch that until after I’m gone.’ When he left, I discovered he’d given us some money, money I knew he couldn’t really afford to give.”
A few minutes later, Marlene Anderson, a neighbor and also a member of the Allens’ ward, came running down the road. “She was crying,” Brother Allen says. “After hugging me, she handed me the keys to her house. ‘You know my husband has been transferred to Oregon,’ she said. ‘He’s been working up there, and I’m tired of being alone. Take our house; stay there until your house is rebuilt. I’m going to move to Oregon.’
“I objected, of course,” recalls Brother Allen, “telling her we couldn’t possibly do that. But she insisted. Finally we agreed to talk about it the next day. And we ended up renting her home, which was just two houses down the street, while we rebuilt ours.”
The Allens’ next-door neighbors, who had called the fire department, were not members of the Church. “They told us later that they were amazed at the stream of people who walked up and down the road all day long,” Sister Allen says. “It was a cold winter day. They couldn’t believe how many people cared.”
Many of the volunteer firemen fighting the blaze had been called out of church meetings, and the Allens learned that prayers had been offered in sacrament meetings as members in the area heard about the fire. The Allens’ oldest son stayed that night with his best friend. As the two teenage boys prepared to go to bed, Darrin was overcome with emotion. “Ed offered a prayer for my family because I couldn’t,” Darrin recalls, still touched by the memory.
Brother Allen stayed at the home with fire officials until late that evening while Sister Allen took the children to her parents’ house, about four miles away. “When I arrived later that night, the front room was full of boxes—boxes of food and clothes and other things we would need,” Brother Allen says. “Some of the things were brand-new, still carrying the tags from the store.”
The giving continued throughout the next few weeks. After making arrangements to rent the Andersons’ home, Brother and Sister Allen stopped by the home to see what items they needed to purchase in order to furnish it.
“When we walked in, we were greeted by another room of boxes,” Sister Allen says. “At first we thought Sister Anderson hadn’t moved out yet, but then three sisters from various wards came walking out of the kitchen, telling us that the boxes were for us. One ward had given us everything we needed for the bathroom and bedrooms, and another ward had completely furnished the kitchen. Relief Society sisters had tied a quilt for our bed. The sisters had dinner waiting for us on the table, and the house was spotlessly clean.
“We ended up buying only one set of bed sheets,” she continues. “And those dishes and pans and towels and sheets are the ones we still use today, a daily reminder of everyone’s love.”
Children from the schools the younger children attended donated clothes, and teachers and children contributed money to replace the new Christmas gifts that were lost in the fire. Other friends gave the youngest Allen children their own Christmas gifts. Brother Allen’s coworkers took up a collection. During a high school wrestling match, someone passed around a gallon jar and gathered more money. The gifts and donations and support seemed endless.
When the Allens started to rebuild their home, the service continued. One older ward member, John Hansen, showed up every morning. “I’d tell him that he didn’t have to come, that I knew he was busy and had plenty of his own things to do,” Brother Allen says. “He’d reply, ‘Well, I’m going to be here anyway, so you might as well give me something to do.’ He came every morning for weeks. His help was invaluable.
“It was hard for us,” Brother Allen acknowledges. “We’re independent, and we felt guilty about everything that everyone was doing. But we felt such an outpouring of love and concern. That was the greatest blessing of all. We knew we were not alone.”
The examples of unselfishness were not lost on the Allen family. Having been given much, they knew they must give in return. Less than a week after the fire, they read in the newspaper about a family in Blackfoot, Idaho, who lost their home to fire as well. Unlike the Allens, this family had no insurance to help them recoup their loss.
That very day the Allens received a truckload of clothes and other items gathered by a sister who helped coach a community wrestling team with Brother Allen. After checking with her, the Allens sent the truck to the family in Blackfoot.
Serving others, however, was not new to the Allen family. “Our parents have always served others; it’s been a part of our lives,” says daughter Tina. “We’ve grown up knowing that giving is important, a priority. The fire reinforced that, of course, because people gave so much of themselves, but the principle had always been taught in our home.”
For example, Brother and Sister Allen and their first four children had moved into the house 17 years before. At the time, only the basement was finished and there was no electricity or plumbing. But the family looked forward to building the home of their dreams.
“We used to roller skate upstairs on the wood floor,” remembers daughter Kristy, now 27. “We all have scars from falling down.” The plan was to work on the house and finish the upstairs as soon as possible.
However, within eight months, Brother Allen was called as bishop. Work on the house became less important as Bishop Allen served the members, often filling his evenings and Saturdays with ward business. It wasn’t until seven years later, after his release, that work on the home was completed and the family moved upstairs.
Ironically, only months after the fire destroyed his home, Brother Allen was called as stake president, a calling he still holds. “The fire was actually good preparation,” Sister Allen observes. “It was the very people who had served us, given so much of themselves, that he would now be serving.”
“I’d never expect to call a fire that destroys your home a blessing,” President Allen says. “But I have to admit that the fire was, indeed, one of the greatest blessings in our married life. Through this experience I have gained a deep testimony that God knows me, Bob Allen, personally. He knows what I’m going through and what I need. That’s a staggering thought, one that brings tremendous peace and strength.
“The gospel puts things like this in perspective,” he concludes. “Carol and I could give this house up and everything that is in it. It’s just stuff. What’s really important are the people, the love, the relationships. That’s what matters.”