Bishop’s Mantle column by Jim Bishop
“EMU – Bluffton baseball game cancelled.”
This notice in small type on the calendar of the sports section of the Harrisonburg Daily News-Record might normally command a passing glance. But on this occasion, these few words jumped out at me like special effects in a 3-D movie, a jarring reminder that what should have been a celebrative, albeit competitive time of fun in the Florida sun instead became a bleak, horrific reality.
It was impossible not to miss the nonstop stories emerging from Atlanta, Ga, of the charter bus carrying 35 passengers from Bluffton (Ohio) University to Florida that crashed in the early morning hours of March 2, scattering luggage, sports equipment and bodies across lanes of I-75. The bus was enroute to Sarasota, Fla., to play Eastern Mennonite University in a baseball doubleheader 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, goals and other connections.
Life took a completely unexpected turn for everyone involved in the accident and for their families, closest relatives and friends. Who of them, upon boarding 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.
I’ve been struck by the incredible outpouring of empathy and support described in news reports and from personal messages received from persons directly involved with the accident and its aftermath. 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.
I received a communique from a third cousin, Johnny Crist, a pastor in Atlanta who attended Eastern Mennonite Seminary, 1974-1976, who was the first clergy person to show up at one of the local hospitals tending to the injured. “Because of the massive news coverage and tight security, I was only able to gain access to secure areas by explaining that I was a Mennonite representing Bluffton’s sister college, Eastern Mennonite University,” Johnny reported. “They immediately brought me in to assist. From that point on, I was the Mennonite universities’ representative in the triage unit … and the ‘resident authority’ on Mennonites.
“I was able to tend to and pray with nearly all the injured players,” Johnny told me. “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 – a moving experience. I prayed with all the families there. Later, I escourted 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.”
Johnny concluded his message to me with these words: “Sunday, most of the players and their families will fly back to Ohio and Indiana. So our work here is nearly completed while their work of grieving has only begun.”
EMU president Loren Swartzendruber was scheduled to speak at Bay Shore Mennonite Church Sunday morning, March 4. He did, with the EMU baseball team, a number of parents and relatives of EMU and Bluffton players present. In his message, the president 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. We are victims of others mistakes. Of course, we do things to ourselves that result in pain or that cause pain to those we love most.
“The words of Romans 8 should always be in our repertoire of responses – ‘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,” Dr. Swartzendruber stated.
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 – being priests at each other’s elbow, if you will – that permeates who we are ethnicity 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’s basic to who we are. 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 a number of occasions – “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 the public-information officer at Eastern Mennonite University.