One of the most emotionally charged moments in all of my life occurred in the early evening of Dec. 5, 2018. My wife, Esther, and I were returning home to Dell Rapids, South Dakota, from a Thanksgiving holiday which was grievously extended by a tragic event.
It is rare to have our four grown children together, but this was the year everyone’s schedules aligned: Craig from Alaska; Matt, wife Terra and their children, Inessa and Elijah, from Washington; Melinda from Iowa and Tanya from Kansas. Our time at my mom’s home in Hutchinson, Kansas, was filled with relatives, turkey, table games, laughter and football games. Esther asked for professional family pictures as an early Christmas present, little knowing how much we would treasure these pictures.
Wednesday we said our goodbyes to Tanya, who had to work Thursday. She loved being one of the main cooks at a nursing home in Beloit, Kansas, and looked forward to making sure they had a great Thanksgiving. Less than four months earlier, Tanya had lost her husband, Dan, to a sudden heart attack. She was still grieving but was enjoying family and looking forward to Christmas. It had been good to have her with us and hard to say goodbye as she headed home.
Sunday morning’s forecast was for a winter snow storm with blizzard conditions. The Beloit region experienced whiteout conditions, precipitating road closures and causing numerous accidents. Tanya’s typical 5 a.m. commute from her home in Cawker City to Beloit was 20 miles, and we encouraged her to consider staying home.
Monday morning when she didn’t come into work, her boss contacted members of Dan’s family. Family members checked her apartment and found it empty and her car gone. Checking with one of her co-workers, they learned Tanya had called Sunday to say that the roads were icy, and she was going to turn around and go home. But she didn’t make it home. After the storm passed Monday the highway patrol found her empty car at the bottom of a steep embankment a mile and a half from her home. Two days of searching for her with helicopters, law enforcement officers, canine units and 60 volunteers on foot, horseback and ATVs ended when I stood with the sheriff and identified her body, found three miles from the car. It appeared she left the car to walk home but then tried to return to the car. The sheriff speculated that she missed the car due to the zero visibility, became lost and perished.
The soul-numbing days that followed were filled with planning a funeral service and rearranging flight plans and job schedules. We were consoled by the many friends and family who were able to attend the services and received numerous cards, phone calls, Facebook messages, texts and prayers from those unable to attend.
On Wednesday, Dec. 5, Esther and I left Craig and Matt’s family at the Kansas City airport, and we were alone, driving back to Dell Rapids. We moved to Dell Rapids a couple of years ago from Sioux Falls. We like small town living, and for my role as the Central District Conference minister, it’s conveniently located near I-29 and I-90. I can reach all of the churches in the Central District Conference in a day’s drive. We have easy access to an airport and our five Sioux Falls churches are within 30 minutes. Dell Rapids is where my office and the CDC files reside, but our house sits empty over half the year as we’re on the road nearly every weekend. We often say Dell Rapids is “where our stuff lives.”
Getting to know people in Dell Rapids is hard since we do not have children in school and haven’t joined any clubs or organizations. Our list of people we know in Dell Rapids is short and no one knew of our loss.
So, when the garage door shut behind us, we felt not only grief but a deep sense of loss and loneliness for community. There would be no one bringing us a casserole or giving us a hug in the aisles of our Dell Rapids hardware store. The cashier at the local grocery store would look over us to the next customer not knowing the anguish of our souls.
This experience causes me to reflect on how we are to make disciples as Jesus instructs in Matthew 28. I am convinced that it must be done in community. Not just any community but an incarnational, in the flesh, life on life, local community that intentionally seeks to be like Christ.
This type of community is what we seek in our USMB vision statement for “each local Mennonite Brethren church to reach its full, God-given ministry potential within the framework of our evangelical and Anabaptist distinctives.” This is a pretty high standard—to intentionally structure our faith communities to be evangelistic, transparent, vulnerable, co-dependent, disciple-making communities, modeling and calling out the next generation, which cannot be accomplished without the gifts and presence of the Holy Spirit.
This faith community is fluid. The cast of characters will change constantly. Not only because of new growth, but because of death and life transitions. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Americans will move 11.4 times in their life time. In 2017, 11 percent of the population moved and of those who moved, 34 percent moved to different cities. This means we need to have our eyes and hearts open for those who are also transitioning from one faith community to another.
With my ministry, it will always be difficult to participate in a local church. We realize that our choice of living in a community where we are unknown created a vacuum within our souls. We need to be a part of an incarnational, in the flesh, life on life, local community intentionally seeking to be like Christ.