LAKE BUTLER, Fla. (BP)–Standing bravely behind four white caskets trimmed in gold, 40 youth from Fellowship Baptist Church in Raiford, Fla., paid tribute to their friends Nikki, Elizabeth, Johnny and Heaven.
With tears streaming down their faces, the heartbroken young people sang “Days of Elijah,” an anthem they were to have performed with three of the victims at a Sunday night service Jan. 29.
Instead, their voices began a somber celebration of their friends’ home going Jan. 25 after a tragic accident involving a bus claimed their lives.
Packing First Christian Church of Lake Butler, the largest church sanctuary in the rural north Florida community of about 2,000 residents near Gainesville, members of Fellowship Baptist mingled with hundreds of others to attend the Mann children’s funeral Jan. 30.
Harold Hudson, pastor of Fellowship Baptist Church, read the children’s obituaries and prayed for peace for the family. Scott Fisher, pastor of the Lake Butler Church of Christ, officiated.
It was the first of four funeral services in a week of mourning for seven children killed in the deadly three-vehicle accident, and the sudden death of their grandfather who suffered a massive heart attack after learning the news. The children’s grandfather, William Edward “Ed” Scott, 70, was chairman of the deacon board at Ochwilla Baptist Church in Hawthorne, about 30 miles from Lake Butler.
Peggy Cason, a longtime member of Fellowship Baptist, told the Florida Baptist Witness newsjournal that the funeral service was “very calm, very sweet and very appropriately done.”
Sunday night, Jan. 29, a visitation service for the Mann children at Union County High School in Lake Butler drew a steady stream of community residents, including churchgoers whose own regular services had been cancelled.
Inside the school’s small auditorium, quiet mourners filed by four caskets topped with flowers and backed by displays featuring photos and other mementos for each of the children. The small casket for Heaven Lee, 3, rested between the caskets of Cynthia Nicole “Nikki” Mann, 15, Elizabeth Daphne Mann, 15, and Johnny Lee Mann, 13.
At the front of the auditorium, parents Barbara and Terry Mann sat in unimaginable grief with family members while a video tribute peppered with Bible verses showed photos of the children at play and with each other. Among photos of Heaven Lee, accompanied by the song, “Daddy’s Hands,” was one of a bearded Terry Mann holding the child as an infant.
Throughout the auditorium, mothers and their children sobbed in each other’s arms, fathers held daughters, and teenaged boys and girls stood talking quietly, grabbing each other in hugs and sometimes awkwardly patting each other.
The youth from Fellowship Baptist huddled close together at one side of the auditorium, wearing small black ribbons to signify their support for their friends whose lives were taken. With them were their youth pastor Bryan Griffis and his wife Tammy.
The Griffises started out early Sunday morning, picking children up in the church bus and shuttling them from Sunday services to the rehearsal for the funeral service at First Christian Church and finally to the visitation at the high school.
An emotional Bryan Griffis said he understood the youths’ need to be together in their loss.
“We are trying to help them all deal and trying to get them to accept what’s going on,” Griffis told Florida Baptist Witness. “I am telling them to trust God and God will help them — that nothing is too mighty for Him.”
Griffis said he played the song “With Hope” by contemporary Christian artist Steven Curtis Chapman to remind the youth that it is OK to miss those who are gone, but to have the hope that they will live forever in heaven.
Tammy Griffis said the most difficult part of the day was watching the teen’s emotions fluctuate.
“Their emotions go up and down,” said Griffis, whose own son, Dustin, 11, was ill and not able to attend the visitation of one of his “best buddies,” Johnny.
On Jan. 27, the youth prepared cross and flower arrangements for a makeshift memorial at the crash site before holding a vigil at Fellowship Baptist, where more than 100 people gathered to remember their friends and offer recollections.
Ricky Dyal, pastor of the First Baptist Church in Raiford, spoke to some residents before a community march Jan. 27 along the highway near the wreck.
“There’s going to be some hard times coming,” he told the crowd, according to a news story in the Gainesville Sun. “Lord, You’re the only way this family, their friends, will get through this. Although we don’t understand, we know that You do.”
The same evening after the Jan. 25 crash only miles away, First Baptist Church of Lake Butler held a regular prayer service, focusing on prayer for all involved in the crash.
“Union County is going to need, in the days and weeks and months ahead, a lot of hope,” Pastor James Croft said, according to the Gainesville Sun. “I don’t know why God lets certain things happen. I do know that His grace is enough to get us through.”
Joni B. Hannigan is managing editor of the Florida Baptist Witness, newsjournal of the Florida Baptist Convention, on the Web at www.floridabaptistwitness.com.