It was a Sunday afternoon, and I was awakened from my nap that had lasted through six innings of the Braves game. As usual, they were winning. I received a notice from Gwinnett County Police that a Police Chaplain was requested at the scene of a suspected suicide of a twenty-six-year-old male. After coordinating a few details, I grabbed my chaplaincy badge and headed out to meet a fellow chaplain at the home where this tragedy had occurred.
As a police chaplain, my role is to help support the fine women and men of the Gwinnett County Police and serve the folks that are involved in whatever the officers are responding to. I’m still relatively new to GCPD, but I’ve already had enough experience to know that these situations are never easy. They are not easy on the officers and most certainly not on the family.
Upon arrival at the scene, my fellow chaplain and I attempted to comfort the family, aid the officers and assist the family as best we could. As you can imagine, it is a chaotic scene at best. The grief and sadness were palpable.
As the Medical Examiner completed her work and the young man’s body was removed from the home, the mother collapsed in grief. It’s understandable. Grief – unexpected, horrible grief is like a tsunami of emotion that floods your body with a pain that cripples the strongest constitution.
As I attempted, poorly, and yet as best that I could, to comfort this mom, I was praying that the God of all creation might give me something to comfort her and the family that had gathered at her home. After praying with her, I felt led to offer my services and the services of Sugar Hill Church to assist her with any details we could. A simple gesture with a business card.
Two days later, I got a call from my good friend, Dr. Chris Martin. Chris is the principal of Lanier High School. I tell you that because Lanier and the five schools that make up the Lanier Cluster are some of Sugar Hill Church’s finest partners. Chris called to ask if I had heard that an Associate Principal at a local school had experienced a tragic loss and if I could help in any way. He’s that kind of good guy. Naturally, I thought, “Well, sure.” Before I could reach out, my ministry assistant, Beth Sudderth, sent me a note that the mom had reached out about funeral planning. I’m not the sharpest knife in the drawer, so it took me a few hours to put two and two together and realize that these two tragedies were the same.
Sugar Hill Church has a rich heritage of serving our community, but to see a ministry need through the lens of a police chaplain, school partner, and local church pastor converge into a mosaic of service is just beautiful.
After meeting with the family, Beth (a bit like Superman) opened the church and set up the service and the reception to follow, all while the church office was closed and the staff was on vacation. The following Friday, Beth and I greeted the family in the Chapel at Sugar Hill Church. Zach Brown, our Worship Pastor, fired up the sound system, and a few hundred people gathered to celebrate the life of a young artist that had chosen to end his life far too early.
My father once told me that my role was simple as he assisted me in the first funeral I ever preached. I can hear him, like it was this morning, “Son, nobody wants to hear you preach today. Honor the deceased, honor their family, and honor the Lord, then pray and sit down.” That was great advice. I knew my role and have attempted to do just that for 200+ funerals.
As the crowd gathered and the family plans unfolded, I realized that Beth, Zach, and I were the only white people in the room. That this service was in this chapel, with musicians, speakers, and preachers that had never been here before, blessed me in such a special way. The music was spirit-filled and God-honoring, and those that spoke, including the female Evangelist that delivered the eulogy, was so on point.
All that was left to be said was my typical blessing. If you aren’t familiar with the blessing, it goes like this:
“May you allow Jesus to go before you and make a way and make your crooked path straight.
That is what He does.
May you allow Jesus to go within you as He delivers peace, joy, fulfillment, and contentment?
Because you are always loved, and He is always good.
And, when life gets difficult, and it will, may you allow Jesus to come along and carry you.
Not around your challenges but through the middle of them. That way, you can hear Him say, as He draws you up close to Himself, wipes away your tears, and kisses you on the forehead,
My Child…I LOVE YOU!”
The crowd worshipped, praised, and encouraged throughout the service and continued through the blessing. Did I say that I was blessed? It was electric. It was unlike any funeral I had been a part of. It was worshipful, and I saw dozens of people come forward to pray and be blessed.
At the graveside, it began to rain. It was 92 degrees, and a large crowd had journeyed to the gravesite. Again, I heard my father’s words. “Honor the young man. Honor the family. Honor the Lord. Pray and sit down. So I did.
We then returned to the church, ate together, and celebrated this young man’s life.
I tell you all of these things to make two observations.
- People. Black, white, brown, purple. When we choose to love people as Jesus loves people, our differences fade away, and the presence of God overcomes them. If you are a police officer, a principal, a pastor, or a hurting family, love does indeed conquer every difference! Great things happen when you choose to honor people and honor the Lord. When you offer to do the right thing, at the right time, for the right reason, God overwhelms you with His goodness.
- Jesus said that if you want to be great, serve others. This experience proves the point in tremendous ways. A broken-hearted mother is comforted by a school principal, police officers, a medical examiner, and police chaplains. All become a community that loves her. A church that opened its door and resources to people that had no connectivity to that church. A police department that invests in chaplains to serve both police officers and the community they serve, and a flexible, servant-minded church staff that loves people. And what did that bring forth? A blessed, gospel-centric, God-honoring worship that comforted and encouraged people into the Kingdom of God. I had the privilege to serve people in need, witness God at work in their grief, and experience what bonds us when the entire world is fractured – Jesus.
Yes, the world is brutal. Yes, this was a horrific tragedy. We were from multiple backgrounds, colors, faith systems, and career paths. We were, I’m certain, in different and varying political positions. But in the moments of grief, when ego, logo, and titles are set aside, and Jesus is lifted up, and service to others is front and center, GREAT THINGS HAPPEN.
Thank you, Gwinnett County Police.
Thank you, Gwinnett County Police Chaplains.
Thank you, Sargeant Michelle Pihara.
Thank you, Chaplain Randy Kennedy.
Thank you, Principal Chris Martin.
Thank you, Beth Sudderth.
Thank you, Zach Brown.
Thank you, Nathan Cooley.
Thank you, Sugar Hill Church.
Thank you to the family, friends, and fellow worshipers who honored the young man, the family, and the Lord.
As promised in the title of this article, REDEMPTION. The Divine has the most beautiful way to redeem our broken, sorrow-filled days with hope, peace, and promise. When we see other people as God intended, we see His redemption power at work in the midst of crisis. If ever there was a time for America to serve others, it is right now. If we were to choose the power of selfless service over political power, and kindness over personal gain, we might see unity over division and hope over despair.
I’ll say it again for the people in the cheap seats:
When we do the right things for the right reason at the right time,
GREAT THINGS HAPPEN.
Go in Peace,