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Church touched by tragedy finds strength in community

SPOTSYLVANIA, Va. (BP)–For Cliff Reynolds, the body of Christ is no longer a sterile theological term. It’s a living reality.
Reynolds, pastor of Goshen Baptist Church, Spotsylvania, Va., has seen that reality in the rush of support from Christians in the community following the abduction and apparent murder of two sisters there. Both Kati and Kristin Lisk were committed members of Goshen, as are their parents, Ron and Patti.
“Somehow, God moves even in the horrors of this situation through the body of Christ,” Reynolds said.
The two girls — 12 and 15 years old — disappeared from their home in Spotsylvania May 1. Their bodies were found May 6 about 40 miles away in Hanover County near Richmond.
Popular at the Spotsylvania Middle and High schools they attended, the Lisk girls also were deeply involved at their church. Both were active in Girls in Action. Kristin was planning to help with Vacation Bible School this summer.
The incident shocked the rural community, still recovering from the abduction and murder last September of 16-year-old Sofia Silva, who, like Kristin Lisk, attended Spotsylvania High School.
But in the midst of its grief and fear, the town mobilized its resources. For days after the girls were reported missing, some 600 volunteers — many of them from local churches — combed the woods, briars and streams in a two-mile swath around the Lisks’ home seeking a clue to their disappearance. Law enforcement officials called it one of the largest ground searches in recent Virginia memory.
The turnout allowed the search of 12 square miles to conclude in three days, instead of the normal week or two, reported the Richmond Times Dispatch.
“Officials were staggered at the response from a community of our size,” Reynolds said. “They had so much donated food coming to the fire station (where the search team was headquartered) to feed the volunteers they had to start turning some of it away.”
Prayer undergirded all the efforts, the pastor said. “The first thing I did the day the girls were reported missing was to call a member of the church who I knew could mobilize the church for prayer,” he said.
Stopping by the church later that evening, Reynolds found about 30 people praying in the sanctuary.
“As I stepped inside, they paused, and all I could say was, ‘Keep doing what you’re doing.'”
After the search was called off May 4, the following days of waiting were hard, Reynolds said. “A lot of people who had managed to handle their emotions by doing something (such as helping the search teams) no longer had that to do. That became difficult.”
When the bodies were found Tuesday, May 6, by state transportation department workers beneath a bridge 40 miles from the Lisks’ home, grief replaced frustration.
Among the thousands moved by news reports the next day of the tragedy was Reginald McDonough, executive director of the Virginia Baptist Mission Board. Working with Susan McBride, a Virginia Baptist mission resource consultant responsible for the Northern Virginia area, and Gwynn Davis, director of mission support ministries for the mission board, McDonough asked Reynolds if a team of counselors could help the church deal with the powerful emotions let loose by the deaths.
“Yes,” Reynolds answered. “Could they be here tonight?”
Within hours, a team of eight was gathered and was on its way. At Goshen, they joined other local counselors to work with about 75 adults in the church’s sanctuary and some 100 young people in the fellowship hall.
“Cliff Reynolds talked for 30 minutes about his own feelings and encouraged people to express their anger,” said Ken Glass, a Virginia Baptist team member who was in the sanctuary with the adults. Glass is liaison with Baptist colleges and schools for the state mission board.
“The question that kept arising was, ‘Why? How could God allow this to happen?'” he said. “But there was a readiness on the part of the congregation to deal with these issues. Seeing people deal with it and still come out strong in their faith was an inspiration to the team.”
“In such a situation it is extremely important that people of faith come together to support one another in their mutual struggle to deal with pain decision,” said Davis, who joined Glass in the sanctuary.
“Goshen Baptist Church is fortunate to have a sensitive pastor who has the wisdom to bring the congregation and community together to support each other in dealing with this issue,” added Davis, who returned to Goshen the following Sunday to preach in the worship service. “Cliff did an extraordinary job throughout this thing.”
Downstairs in the fellowship hall, the 20 to 25 youth of the church were joined by about 75 of their friends from the high and middle schools. After reading Scripture, the counselors divided the youth into groups of 15 to 20.
“None of the youth in my group were members of the church,” said Roberta Damon, minister of counseling at First Baptist Church, Richmond. “Many I’m sure had no church affiliation at all.”
At first the youth were reluctant to talk. “Here we were — strangers — asking them to talk about their intimate feelings. Naturally they were reticent,” Damon said.
But before long, they were voicing deep feelings, she said. “Some expressed anger; all expressed fear. One girl said Sofia Silva (the 16-year-old murdered last fall) had been her best friend and now this had happened.”
Damon said the youth told her the deaths had created a sense of unity among the young people in the high and middle schools. Factions and cliques were being replaced, they told her, and “now we’re bonded.”
“In the midst of all this horror, these kids are very concerned about each other,” she said. “You can’t take 100 kids in a room and say, ‘Now they’re all right because we went up there and talked to them.’ But we made ourselves available. They saw Christians expressing their faith in the face of the unthinkable.”
Others on the Virginia Baptist team were Rhonda Nash, minister of youth at Hulls Memorial Baptist Church, Falmouth, Va., and two students at Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond: Theresie Houghton and Jim Hunter.
Other congregations in the area had similar sessions, said Steve Aycock, director of missions for the Fredericksburg Baptist Association, of which Goshen is a member. “Every church I know about has dealt with it with their own church family from the standpoint of fear and grief and the community’s loss.”
On Saturday, May 10, the community gathered once more — this time to hear thanks for their outpouring of support.
Following a private burial that morning — the eve of Mother’s Day — more than 1,000 gathered in Spotswood Baptist Church in Fredericksburg for a memorial service. The church, which seats 1,500, is one of the largest in the area.
“You did so much to strengthen me and my family, and in a real way you provided a safety net,” Ron Lisk, the girls’ father, told the congregation. “The prayers we felt from people I don’t even know were truly, truly a safety net.
“I hope … you’ll feel that safety net around you.”
Several speakers — including Virginia Gov. George Allen and law enforcement officers — talked about their struggles to make sense of the tragedy and about their faith and their fear.
“The community service was a healing time,” said Reynolds later. “In a sense, it gave the community permission to go on with their lives.”
“Now we can return to a normalcy but a better normalcy,” Aycock said. “I think that over the next few weeks, even though we’re going to be more aware of what’s going on, we’re going to be closer together as family and as community. This has forced us to recognize that we are community and we’re in this together.”
Said Reynolds: “After the service, a reporter told me it was amazing that the girls’ father could speak to the people as he did. I said, ‘Yes, we serve an amazing God.’ The testimony in our hearts is that life is not fair, but God is good.”

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  • Robert Dilday