Sad news

Educational and youth ministries have been very important to me for all of my career. When I was a college student, I served on the Christian Eduction committee of the congregation I belonged to. In Seminary, I served two internships. One was as a youth minister at Union Church of Hinsdale, Illinois. Together with other church staff I participated in planning and carrying out youth ministries in a large and complex congregation. We had weekly youth group meetings, youth church school classes and a lot of special activities for youth including camps, retreats, work tours, and recreational events such as bike rides, trips to amusement parks, and a host of other events and activities. I drove vans and busses and even a truck hauling bicycles as part of that work. I also followed the lives of youth as they navigated through their high school years. In addition to those activities, Susan and I were managers of the church camp of the Montana-Northern Wyoming Conference of the United Church of Christ at a time when youth camping attracted 60 to 150 youth per week.

I was excited to develop youth ministries in the two congregations we were called to serve as we graduated from seminary. The smaller of the two congregations had more youth. There were a half dozen high school students in the congregation with a few younger siblings nearly old enough for high school. The other congregation had a few high school youth as well. Back in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s in rural North Dakota youth whose families attended church all participated in the church youth group. Wednesday was “church night” and the schools had no activities to compete with church youth group meetings. Our little church in Reeder began to attract youth whose families weren’t active in other congregations and we regularly had events that were shared with the Lutheran and Catholic congregations in town. Our Reeder youth were all boys in the beginning. I organized a work trip for the summer after we arrived. We traveled to Montana where we worked on a project at the church camp that we had managed and then got in some days of fishing, hiking and exploring the mountains as well. Four boys and I accomplished quite a bit of work and had some very meaningful times of worship, including sharing communion together on the last day in Montana.

Later I took those youth to the North Dakota church camp at Lake Metigoshe in the Turtle Mountains on the Canadian border, on annual ski retreats to the Black Hills where we stayed at Placerville Camp, and to youth rallies and events around North Dakota as well as regional and national youth events. Through it all we got to know each other very well.

I have followed the lives of some of those youth through the years as we have gone on to serve other congregations and be involved in other youth groups.

Because I have followed those lives yesterday was a particularly sad day for me, as it was for others. My excitement at receiving a phone call from the sister of one of those original youth group boys quickly melted into sorrow as she informed me that after a couple of days without contact with him they had asked for a law enforcement wellness check. An officer found his body. I do not know the details of his death, but I know that he was young. As the tragedy swept through his family and they began to deal with their shock and grief and undertake plans for some kind of memorial service in the season of Covid, I spent the day going through memories.

This is not the first tragedy in the stories of the boys in that youth group. It is the fourth death of one of those youth. It is the second death in that family.

I know that young people die. I learned that early in my career as a minister. The second funeral at which I officiated, while I was still an intern, was for a 15-year-old. I’ve officiated at many funerals for people younger than I. I’ve helped to care for families who have experienced the death of an infant or young child. I know that death is a part of life. Christianity is based in our deep convictions of resurrection. We know that death is not the end. Preaching hope in the face of tragedy is part of my calling.

Still, I am dwelling with my sadness and the tragedy that has unfolded in one family for a while.

In the 11th chapter of John’s Gospel, we read that a man, Lazarus of Bethany, was ill. When Jesus, who loved him, heard of his illness, he was in the midst of other activities and his arrival at the home of Lazarus was delayed. The delay was so long that Lazarus was dead and buried before Jesus arrived. People familiar with the story can repeat the part about Lazarus’ resurrection and how he came out of the tomb, but there is more to that story. Before Lazarus’ resurrection, Jesus spoke to his sisters. He comforted them. He heard of their anger at his late arrival. He visited the tomb. He wept. He didn’t ignore the pain and grief and even the anger. He participated in it fully. The story is one of the models for my ministry.

While it is not appropriate for a pastor to allow his or her emotions to get in the way of providing care for those who are served, pastors cannot ignore their emotions. We grieve, too. We weep.

Last evening, I read an email that I received in response to a change of email address auto responder that I have on one of my accounts in preparation for moving. The email asked me if I wanted to continue to be on a prayer chain now that I am no longer serving a congregation. I knew my answer right away. I do want to continue to pray with and for those I have served. Our lives are intertwined. It has been more than 35 years since I moved on from the congregation of the young man who died. I continue to pray with and for him and his family.

I don’t want to every stop praying with the people of the church, even though I already know that those prayers will bring tears to my eyes and sadness to my life from time to time.

Copyright (c) 2020 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!