“For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labor for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know! I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body.” Phil. 1:21-24 (NIV)
A little more than a decade ago, two missionary friends of mine died from unrelated illnesses within a few months of each other. These were heartbreaking losses for those of us left behind: How could they be taken in the primes of their lives while doing exactly what God wanted them to be doing?
Of course, as God told Job, He doesn’t often feel compelled to answer such questions.
About 36 hours after the tragedy, I caught up with Brad Smith, student minister at the New Port Richey church, and talked to him about what he was going through personally and how the church could move forward from such a tragic loss.
By the time we talked late in the night on Feb. 22, Brad had to be running on pure adrenaline. As late as 10:15 p.m., he was still talking to students about the terrible tragedy that had claimed the lives of the two dedicated youth workers.
in a tragedy
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Earlier in the day, Brad and his wife had made the trip from New Port Richey to Gainesville to meet with two students who remained hospitalized following the wreck of a church van that occurred when the vehicle’s left rear tire blew, causing the van to roll several times.
As midnight Saturday approached, Smith’s only conversation that remained unfinished for the day was an interview with me, where he gave exclusive details about what happened in the minutes following the accident and how Baptists from around the state and beyond have shown their gestures of support.
After our conversation, Smith would be left trying to put the finishing touches on what he would say to students coming to worship Sunday at First Baptist New Port Richey.
“In each service there will be something special by way of song that will take place,” Smith said. “There will also be a time of prayer. When it comes to the students’ Sunday School hour, I’m still kind of putting that together. It will involve us diving into scripture and praying and loving each other.
“When people are going through hard times, they don’t want to hear Christian clichés. And, while I know personally the Bible says all things work together for good, right now it’s really hard for our leaders, our church body. One of the things I know (Jeff Novak and Michalanne Salliotte) would both want is that God would get the glory and that people would be saved.”
Novak, a father of four, had been doing student ministry at First Baptist Church of New Port Richey for about 7 years, Smith said.
“Jeff loved Jesus, and he loved young people. And he loved telling people about Jesus,” Smith said. “He was a guy I could always count on. It didn’t matter what the event was: a big one, small one, Jeff was always there. He loved driving. He was always the first one to volunteer.”
Novak was also a teacher in the youth department, and he wrote puppet skits and dramas the church used as part of its discipleship program. He also led a Thursday night Bible study.
But for Smith, the loss of Novak goes even deeper.
“Beyond that, he was my friend,” Smith said. “We would talk several times a week.”
Salliotte’s involvement in the youth program at First Baptist Church in New Port Richey intensified this past summer. A mother of four, she had just become a small-group leader.
“She was involved with our middle school girls and was really starting to develop a relationship with them,” Smith said. “She loved people. For about a year, we would have groups that would meet in her house to do evangelism visitation.”
On the morning of Feb. 21, two vehicles left the parking lot of First Baptist Church in New Port Richey about 15 minutes apart. Novak and nine others left in a 15-passenger church van about 5:15 a.m. Smith sent them on ahead because he knew they would need more stops for gas. They did not plan on meeting up until they got to the camp, some 430 miles away.
About three hours into the trip, Smith was walking the aisle of the chartered bus that was carrying 53 people, including a handful of students from Lakewood Ranch Baptist Church in Sarasota.
He had no idea whether Novak and the van were ahead of them or behind at the time. And then Smith’s phone rang. And everything changed.
His phone was still in his seat, and he might have missed the call except one of the students brought it to him. The girl on the other end of the phone, obviously shaken, told him the van had been in an accident and had flipped. In shock, she was unable to give any details.
A few minutes later the husband of one of the chaperones called Smith, and he had spoken to his wife and had more details about what had happened.
It took the bus about 30 minutes to get back to the scene of the accident. During that time, Smith got the leaders together and they put a plan in place that included telling the students the van had been in an accident but they should not say anything on social media until they had more details.
“It was an incredibly difficult thing to do,” Smith recalls of his first words with the students under his care. “I didn’t even know what to say. I don’t remember what I said. I remember telling them that (Novak and Salliotte) had been killed, and we were able to pray together.”
The people on the bus didn’t stay at the scene of the accident very long, but instead went immediately to a nearby hospital where students were being treated for a variety of injuries.
Smith recalls how everyone, from the Florida Highway Patrol and local businesses to the Beulah Baptist Association and area pastors, came to minister to them in their time of greatest need. They arranged everything from much-needed information updates and a place to park the chartered bus to an assortment of food from Chick-Fil-A, Arby’s and Subway, among others.
Smith, who has served in ministry since 2001, including the last nine years at First Baptist Church of New Port Richey, says he has never even “come close” to having to deal with the situation that confronts him and his students at the present time.
“They were my friends,” Smith said of Novak and Salliotte. “Both of them were. There is a great sense of loss. Aside from student ministry, there is a great deal that I’m going to miss. And in the days and weeks and months and years ahead we’ll see how that really changes me.”
During my times of greatest need, I have taken comfort in these words from the end of the book of Job, when he drew this inspiration:
“My ears had heard of you,” Job said to God in the first part of 42:5, recalling the prosperous first years of his life. But, after all the difficulties he had gone through, Job could now declare, “my eyes have seen you.”
I have been able to say the same thing after some of my most difficult times, and that is my prayer for First Baptist Church of New Port Richey during their season of loss.
[Brad Smith serves on the Board of Directors of Florida Baptist Witness.]
In the office at 904-596-3171, via email at kbumgarner@goFBW.com and Twitter @FBWdreamchaser.
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