Last fall, two youth were tragically killed in front of our congregation in a multi-car accident. Another boy had a lengthy hospital stay, but ultimately recovered. The youth were victims, killed in a stationary car when an out of control car sped and flipped on the road in between the high school and church.
The tragedy touched everyone in the community. Everyone knew someone in the three families. The accident impacted the church profoundly too. The tire marks of the cars scared our lawn for weeks; many on staff even witnessed the accident or its immediate aftermath; lastly countless people in the church knew the children or even had taught them. One member of our church had all three in one class! The first couple days were a chaotic swirl of rumors, shock and tears.
Deacon Emily Myallis led some staff members in placing a fence lattice piece on our lawn by the accident location. She included a cross and sharpies for people to write words and prayers. In the coming weeks, people wrote…and wrote…and wrote. They also brought flowers, pictures, sporting equipment (the two that died were heavily involved in athletics), candles and art work. It was a tremendous outpouring of grief. As we offered more fencing, more was brought. People in and outside of the community would stop and pray. A whole bus of high school girls from another school got off their bus and paid their respects before a game. Our church property became holy ground for the whole community.
The church was reminded of its unique vocation to provide people a space to grieve. With younger people not knowing of Jesus resurrection (much less trusting in it!), death is overwhelming for people; grief is avoided. The church of Jesus Christ can courageously step into the pain and hurt of life, always trusting the God whose love is poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit!
As time wore on, people stopped leaving things at the memorial, but it was clear that the community was still hurting. We ultimately decided to construct a more permanent memorial, with a bench for each child. This turned out to be fairly complicated, balancing our own members’ piety around memorials, the desires of the family, the zoning code of the borough and insights of our various staff and committees about sustainability of this project. Throughout the process, we needed to communicate internally and externally; so we used everything at our disposal: newsletters, social media, newspapers and even news outlets.
The community eagerly assisted and funded the project. We never solicited general donations, but again certain companies did make significant donations. It took two months to coordinate the various people who were willing to help with in kind donations. Thanks be to God, we were able to finish it before Warwick Schools let out for the summer. At God would have it, this was on Pentecost Sunday. It became an amazing way to end our Pentecost, with a meaningful service dedicating the memorial. A few hundred people showed up, including many high school students. We felt blessed to have the good will of all the people! (Acts 2:47)
-Pastor Rob Myallis, St. Paul Lutheran Church, Lititz