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Three strikes, but not out…

Posted on March 5th, 2007

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Hear Jim Bishop read this essay.

“EMU – Bluffton baseball game cancelled.”

EMU responds to Bluffton tragedy This notice in small type on the Saturday calendar of my local newspaper might normally attract little notice.

But on this occasion, the words jumped out at me as a jarring reminder that what should have been a celebrative, albeit competitive, time of fun in the Florida sun instead denoted a bleak, horrific reality.

For the previous 24 hours, stories had emerged non-stop from Atlanta, Ga., of the Friday morning crash of a charter bus carrying 35 passengers from Bluffton (Ohio) University to Florida. The accident left luggage, sports equipment and bodies scattered across lanes of I-75. The bus was en route to Sarasota, Fla., to play Eastern Mennonite University (EMU) in a baseball double-header the next day.

Four players, the bus driver and his wife were killed, and many others were injured, some critically. Many members of the EMU community immediately became part of the story, not only because the schools were about to face each other in baseball, but because EMU and Bluffton are sister Mennonite universities, with shared values and multiple family connections.

EMU baseball captain Jameson Jarvis told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution: “This should help show each and every individual we’re not promised tomorrow . . . We’re not promised 10 minutes from now.” He showed the newspaper reporter the rim of his baseball hat where he wears Psalms 46:10: “Be still and know that I am God.”

Yet who of those who boarded that bus, thought this would be their last road trip on planet Earth? Why were certain ones taken while others walked away more emotionally than physically scarred?

It’s at such times, as puzzling, seemingly unfair and devastating as they are, that human beings have opportunity to exhibit their full potential, experience their finest hour. The outpouring of empathy and support has been incredible, from AirTran’s offer of free transportation to flowers and messages left at the site of the accident.

Statements of solidarity were quickly issued by sister Mennonite school Goshen (Ind.) College, from Mennonite Education Agency and Mennonite Church USA. Campus ministries staff at EMU sent resource materials to Bluffton, Ohio, and to Sarasota, Fla., for use in grief services held there, while persons from the Mennonite community in Atlanta moved in to assist medical personnel with aid and comfort.

Third-cousin Johnny Crist, lead pastor of the Atlanta Vineyard congregation who attended Eastern Mennonite Seminary in the mid 1970s, was the first clergy person to arrive at the hospital caring for the majority of the casualties.

“I was able to tend to and pray with nearly all the injured players,” Johnny told me in an e-mail. “Later Friday afternoon, I was asked to join the disaster team at the downtown hotel for police and medical briefings and to care for the arriving families.

“On Saturday, I led the team of the four families who lost their sons to the crash site &mdash a moving experience. I prayed with all the families there. Later, I escorted two of the victim’s parents and families to view their son’s bodies at a local funeral home, likely the most difficult day of their lives. Again, they asked me to pray with them at the bedsides of the deceased.”

At a March 4 church service in a Sarasota Mennonite church attended by EMU’s baseball team and many more mourners, EMU President Loren Swartzendruber said, “It is possible to embrace a theology that celebrates the presence of God in every moment and experience of life, without believing that God causes such tragedies.

“We are fully human, and we live in a world that is far from perfect. We get sick. We get old, and some have the good fortune to get older than others,” said Dr. Swartzendruber. “We are victims of others’ mistakes.”

But, he added, “the words of Romans 8 should always be in our repertoire of responses &mdash ‘For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.’”

Among the things that keep me committed to an Anabaptist-Mennonite understanding of faith and practice is the priority given to demonstrating caring and community &mdash being priests at each other’s elbow, if you will &mdash that permeates who we are as a people and makes me “proud” to be a member of this “minority group” within the larger Christian landscape. We may not have a corner on this quality, but it is one of our basic convictions.

In the wake of this and other crises that persons around us are facing, may we all rededicate ourselves to weep with those who weep, mourn with those who mourn and, yes, laugh with those who laugh.

As President Swartzendruber has said on several occasions &mdash “A community that cannot laugh together will never know how to cry together.”

This is indeed a time to cry as many pick up the pieces. And, farther on down the road, there will again be laughter.

———-
Jim Bishop is public information officer at Eastern Mennonite University.

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