OAK GROVE, La. (BP)–Five people killed in a church van crash June 22 all had made professions of faith within the last 18 months, said Greg Dunn, a pastor in Oak Grove, La.
Providentially, Dunn added, the 50 or more churches of several denominations in West Carroll Parish began planning for an area-wide crusade a year ago.
The 3,000 people in and around Oak Grove are broken with grief, said Dunn, pastor of New Zion Baptist Church. Even so: “We believe what Satan meant for harm, God will use for good. We are going to honor their lives by many souls coming to the Lord.”
Investigation continues into the cause of the crash, which took place in daylight about five miles from New Zion as the 15-passenger church van took folks home from Wednesday night services.
Killed were Portia Thornton and her two daughters, Katelyn, 19, and Brittany, 12, as well as Emma Adams, 4, who was visiting the church, and driver Joey W. McKan. Six others were injured, some critically.
“I will never forget that night, standing in the hallway while surrounded by church members, still talking about the service and laughing and fellowshipping like we always do, and then came the call that would forever change our lives,” Dunn said.
A frantic yet prayer-filled dash to the accident site followed.
“We could have never been prepared for what we saw and heard when we arrived,” Dunn said. “I have never felt so helpless, wishing that this was not happening, and yet it was.”
The next few days were filled with hospital visits, funerals and road trips between Shreveport, La., and Jackson, Miss., “to pick up the broken pieces and try to do all we could to minister to these precious families,” Dunn said.
As Sunday quickly approached, Dunn recounted, “I lay in my bed Saturday night, knowing that my church family was expecting a word from the Lord.
“Jesus reminded me of the storm the disciples faced in Matthew 8, when they were all in the boat and the wind and the waves began to shake their faith.
“We can't choose the storms,” Dunn said. “We are guaranteed to have storms. … I cried out, 'Lord, where are You in our storm? Where are You in the midst of this tragedy?'”
Dunn said God told him that He was in all the people who have united because of the crash: EMT personnel, hospital staff, volunteers, families, churches and communities “from all over who have come together for one purpose: to help the hurting. … He's the one holding the hand of the dying. … He's a piano player, a deacon, a body of Christ who rallies around a scared, young preacher who wants to quit and run the other way.”
Dunn wrote down 21 places where God was amid the tragedy and read his “Where is God?” list at Mt. Zion at the Sunday, June 26, service. The pastor said he could see comfort settling atop the congregation's raw wounds.
“The Lord is doing His work here,” Dunn said, turning from the tragedy to view the big picture of God's activity. New Zion, planted in 1934 during the Great Depression, reported 60 professions of faith and 31 baptisms in 2010 and probably that many already in 2011.
“We're a very mission-minded church and serious about being real,” Dunn said.
“We know God has given evangelists as a gift to the local church, so we use them,” he added in reference to revival meetings held at Mt. Zion twice a year.
“Everybody on this van were folks saved and discipled in the last 18 months,” Dunn continued, “every last one of them,” including a 16-year-old girl who made a profession of faith six months ago as a result of the van ministry.
“We send 20 to 25 missionaries out of our church each year to do missions, and we believe missions starts at home,” Dunn said. “We seek through our Brotherhood and the women's group to minister any way we can — cutting down trees, providing school supplies, groceries — any avenue we can to get the Gospel to people not just in word but in action.
“Our director of missions [Jay Morgan] was out of town when this happened,” Dunn said, returning to the loss his congregation is enduring. “He was doing ministry with Kingdom Builders and drove all night to be at the hospital with the families and me.
“It was overwhelming, the first few hours,” Dunn said. “The people have moved from 'overwhelmed' to very evidently trusting God in it. They're still hurting, still in need, but trusting God.”
Dunn said his immediate goal is “to be there and try to be strong for them and with them”
“The one thing we know is we can cling to God's Word and God's presence,” the pastor said. “The message God gave us Sunday morning was about the storms of life and how we can't choose whether or not we go through them, but we can choose how we handle it.”
The July 10-15 community crusade is scheduled for 11 a.m. Sunday and 7 p.m. each night in the Thomas Jason Lingo Center in Oak Grove, with evangelist Bill Britt as guest speaker and the Mackey Willis Family leading in worship.
Depending on what God does with hearts already broken, the crusade could be extended, said Dunn, chairman of the crusade steering committee.
“One thing God has given us is that this [crusade] is going to be big,” Dunn said. “[Britt] has a gift to challenge Christians to be real and not lukewarm. … We felt like this is who God wanted to be part of this crusade.
“This is something no one is going to want to miss. … You're going to want to see for yourself what God does.”
Karen L. Willoughby is managing editor of the Baptist Message (www.baptistmessage.com), newsjournal of the Louisiana Baptist Convention.