It was a pretty typical night, or so I thought. Our kids were all gathered for youth group, staff mingling amongst the 50 some high school kids who had come together for a night of community and fellowship… a normal vision for any who would enter the doors at Hope Church at 7pm on a Sunday evening. One of our community groups won a pizza party, so I ran out with my friend Andy to pick up 5 pizzas, some 2-liter sodas and some cookies. Little did I know that when I arrived back at church, my outlook on this night (and this life) wouldn’t be the same ever again.
We drove up to the building and saw a shuttle bus, and an unmarked cop car. I really didn’t know what to think about this… our church used to run a shuttle bus to another parking lot for overflow, but never for the evening service. Cops are always driving into the parking lot at Hope to check on the building at night. I thought it was a pretty routine Sunday evening, but man, it ended up being everything but routine.
As Andy and I were walking into the building, we were greeted by Ryan, a staffer, who proceeded to say: “I don’t think I’m going to be able to tell you this without crying…” and instantly a warmth overcame me. I was nervous, anxious, and had no idea what words were about to come out of his mouth next. He then said that a Mennonite youth group travelling from Charlottesville on their way home to North Carolina had been in a terrible accident, where the driver of their 15 passenger van hit a guard rail, over corrected, and they went flying into the air. When their van landed, they were practically in a swamp. The driver suffered a heart attack which caused the accident. His wife, sitting in the front seat was also injured pretty severely, yet all of the kids in the van escaped with just bruises and heavy hearts. Another leader of their group, was driving a mini-van following behind them, and watched the entire thing happen. He said he had NO idea what he was going to find once he finally got down into the swamp. He figured they all would have been killed.
One of the first responders to the accident was a State Trooper named Hans. Hans is a man that I’ve heard of numerous times, but had never met until this very night. He is a member of Hope Church, and the Brother-In-Law of Pete, Hope’s Director of Student Ministries. When he arrived at the accident, there were several cars that had stopped to help. Men in business suits, crawling around in the mud to help free these kids from this barely harmed, mud covered 15 passenger van. The paramedics worked furiously on the man who suffered the heart attack, and they eventually took him to a hospital close by. There wasn’t much hope for this man, and apparently on the way to the hospital, they ended up pronouncing him dead. His wife was taken to a different hospital, to be treated for her injuries. Meanwhile, a man who stopped to help the victims of the accident, called his brother who happened to own a limousine company, who provided the shuttle bus to take the kids to safety. Hans sent them to Hope Church, not knowing that there would be anyone in the building.
When they arrived at Hope, they were covered in mud, shaking and scared from what had just taken place. This is where the youth staff at Hope sprung into action. We gave them a quiet room to sit and pray and be together. But we didn’t just leave it at that. Two of our adult leaders, Nicole and Wesley, took the children of the man who suffered the heart attack to the hospital to be close with their parents.
When Andy and I were walking up to the building, we didn’t have any idea what was going on. We were met by Ryan, who was on his way to McDonalds to grab food for these youth. Little did Ryan know, but God already had plans for Pizza to be on the way.
Hans didn’t think that there would be anyone at the church, but instead, an entire youth group was there who would eventually scrap all of their plans for the evening and have an intense prayer session… lifting their hearts and words and concerns for this group, and for the man who’d been pronounced dead, and for his wife who was in critical condition. Cody and others executed a beautiful space for our kids to seek the Lord in this situation that was whirling all around them.
Hans stayed at the church with us the entire time we were caring for this youth group… this family, just like ours. He explained to us that he wasn’t supposed to even be on duty this night. He also said that if it had been any other night, and any other accident, everyone in that van would have died. But God had his hand on that van, and on the people in it.
And the driver of that van, the man who had a heart attack and had been pronounced dead, was not dead. He was alive. Revived. It was a miracle. We prayed for a miracle, and we received it, in a mighty way that evening.
The tow truck brought the mud covered van to the church so that belongings could be retrieved. We didn’t want those kids who had come out of that van and out of that accident to see it, so we sprung into action. Jessica, Andrew and I grabbed all the boxes that we could find, and sorted through their mud covered belongings so that they’d be safely returned to them all. Shoes, bibles, pillows, clothes. Meanwhile, they were inside praying and waiting for their rides to come get them. We were waiting for our hearts to settle down from everything that had just happened. A week and a half later, I don’t think my heart has settled down yet, and maybe that’s just what needed to happen from all of this.
I am so proud to be a part of a staff who takes what is handed to them, and runs with it… in any way and every way possible. That night, we led our kids in a beautiful example of what it is to be salt and light and the true definition of the Church. I am proud to work along side of some of the best people in the world. People who encourage me to grow in my faith, and to put it into action, no matter the circumstance. People who give the best of themselves in every way possible, and who are the true definition of good and faithful servants.
I am thankful for a State Trooper named Hans, a man who I hadn’t met until this night, but feel like I’ve known my entire life. I’m thankful for his insight into a tough evening. I’m thankful for the tears that fell down my face as I listened to him recap and think through everything that had just happened. I’m thankful for those moments, leaning on the counters of the Grounded coffee shop in the concourse at Hope Church, because I realized in those moments that this is what community is. This is what living out our faith looks like. It’s being bold in the hard times, loving on others who need it most, and being the body of Christ, no matter what the circumstance.
More importantly, I am thankful for a God who always protects, always loves, always gives us His best and His grace, in every aspect of our lives. I am thankful for a God who knows better than we do, a God who hears us when we call on His name, and performs miracles that we can’t even comprehend right before our very eyes. I am thankful for the family of Christ, and how the world became a little smaller that evening when a youth group from North Carolina entered our hearts forever.
Their rides ended up coming to retrieve them, and we sent them on their way with hot coffee in their cups, freshly baked cookies, 5 pizzas and a youth group who loved them, despite having only met them because a state trooper sent them to a safe place, a church. A good place to find life. We may never see them again, but we will always keep them in our hearts.
I didn’t know how to write this post. I didn’t know how to formulate these sentences to make any sense. I didn’t know if I’d be able to accurately represent what took place that evening, but I tried. I hope I never forget what I felt, saw and how we reacted that evening. It was a mess. A beautiful mess… covered in lots of mud, and lots of love.