LOUISVILLE, Ky. (BP)–For Jon Pearce, this was no ordinary funeral.
He scarcely knew the girl who had died -– a 10-year-old whose funeral would be covered by reporters from ABC News, The New York Times and USA Today among the hundreds who would gather at Crothersville (Ind.) Community School to remember the girl who had been an energetic, bright-eyed fourth-grader there just days earlier.
The body of Katlyn “Katie” Collman, who had been involved in First Baptist Church’s Wednesday evening AWANA youth program for only a few weeks, was found in a creek 20 miles outside of town on Jan. 30. The heartbreaking discovery ended a search that began after Katie had gone missing on Jan. 25. It was the first homicide in Crothersville, population 1,600, in 25 years.
Investigators believe Katie stumbled upon a lab where methamphetamine was being manufactured and sold in an apartment complex near her home. She apparently had entered one of the apartments to inform the occupants that their dog had been killed on the railroad tracks that stretch through the town.
Investigators believe Katie was killed because she saw too much, that those operating the “meth lab” decided to keep her from informing others — perhaps law enforcement officers — of their illegal activities.
Pearce, First Baptist’s pastor the past five years and a doctor of ministry student at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, was selected by the family to deliver the eulogy at the Feb. 6 funeral because of Katie’s recent involvement in the church’s youth program. For Pearce, it was an opportunity to set before a hurting community both the sinfulness of fallen man and the goodness of a sovereign God.
“I was pleased that God chose me to do the funeral, but at the same time, I was scared about what to say because this wasn’t any ordinary funeral,” Pearce said. “… I felt the community was looking for an answer as to why this happened. I wanted to make sure that I glorified God in it.”
Crothersville is tucked in the woods just off Interstate 65, some 40 miles north of Louisville, Ky. It is a place where neighbors have known each other for generations, where one can still buy goods from a family owned business.
“It was one of those things that you never really think of happening in a small town,” Pearce said. “It surprised a lot of people. But as Christians, we know that evil is everywhere, even in small towns.”
One of Crothersville’s own now stands accused of the crime. Three days after locating Katie’s body, 20-year-old local resident Charles James “Chuckie” Hickman was charged with the murder. Police say Hickman has since confessed to Katie’s slaying. Authorities are still seeking accomplices who may have driven the girl to the place in the country where she died because Hickman apparently does not know how to drive, Pearce said.
“There are a lot of immigrants in that part of town, and so people were saying that it was perhaps one of them who had killed Katie,” Pearce recounted. “Or they thought, ‘It had to be somebody off the interstate; it can’t be anybody from our town.’ They were really shocked to find out that it was a person that everybody had seen hanging out in town, a young guy they called a ‘meth head.’”
Pearce, who received his master of divinity from Southern Seminary in 1998, said the shocking reality that a local resident is charged with such a heinous act has given him a platform to speak on the existence of evil in the human heart. He has sought to demonstrate that evil is not peculiar to large cities but is found wherever fallen people live. The murder has led to a reawakening of moral outrage in the town, he said.
“For some it has been a time to blame God,” he said. “For others, it has been a questioning of how God could allow this to happen or asking the question, ‘Is there evil in the world?’ I have been able to talk to a lot of people about that…. Many first assumed that it was a foreigner or somebody off the interstate who did this, but come to find out, they see that evil is close to home.
“It is a good opportunity to point out to people the problem of evil in the human heart, the need for a redeemer and the righteousness that is found only in Christ — that we will stand before God and that our sin nature can only be taken away and punished through Christ.
“It has also awakened people to the need for justice. The people are starting to get together and say, ‘Hey, this is our town; we’ve got to take it back.’ At the funeral I really focused on the quote of Edmund Burke that ‘evil triumphs when good men do nothing.’”
Methamphetamine labs are becoming a fast-spreading cancer in Crothersville, the pastor said, as evidenced by a local home where the roof was blown off by a meth lab explosion earlier this year.
“Nothing was really done about it,” he said. “And no arrests were made…. I talked to a lady just before the funeral who was with an organization called Parents of Murdered Children. Her daughter had been shot in a similarly stupid incident. She told me, ‘There is going to be a lot of outrage and it is all going to be internalized and it will all dissipate within two weeks if you don’t do something about it from the very beginning.’”
Pearce, who has been interviewed by multiple national media outlets and appeared on ABC’s “Good Morning America” regarding the murder, hopes to help the town act on its desire for justice and to become a safer environment for children, all the while pointing them to Christ.
In the weeks since the funeral, already Pearce has been instrumental in helping the town consider a new community watch program by which neighbors protect each other and exert pressure through legal means against neighboring houses peddling dope.
Pearce marched alongside 380 Crothersville citizens through the streets in a recent “Walk for Katie” as both a memorial to the slain youth and a public declaration of the town’s war on drugs.
A group in Crothersville is lobbying to have the apartment complex from which Katie was abducted razed and a memorial to the murdered youth put in its place. Pearce noted that the incident has instilled in the local citizenry a deeper love for and watchfulness over their children.
“This has awakened people to be responsible for not only their own children, but also the children of others,” Pearce said. “I have been able to point out that our children are precious, that they are made in God’s image, and that one day we will give an account for them.”
First Baptist is the largest church in Crothersville, but Pearce said he is convinced Katie’s family selected him to speak at the funeral not because of the church’s prominence, but because of its ministry to children.
In addition to the standard youth group, First Baptist offers many activities for children and makes them one of the central aspects of its ministry, said Pearce, whose wife Michele is expecting the couple’s third child in the spring.
Above all, Pearce wants to see God’s glory manifested in His people being light during these darkest of days in Crothersville.
“Thom Rainer [dean of Southern Seminary’s Billy Graham School of Evangelism, Missions and Church Growth] said more than 80 percent of all persons saved come to Christ before the age of 20,” Pearce said. “We have a lot of youth programs at the church and we really care about children. I think the community knows that. If not, we want them to know that.
“As Christians we’ve got to be light, and one thing light does is take away darkness. In this situation, as in all others, that is what we want to do.”