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FIRST-PERSON: When a church member dies on a mission trip


COVINGTON, Tenn. (BP) – Our church sends mission teams to Ridgecrest Conference Center every year to serve students attending Fuge Camps. It’s a wonderful service opportunity, and one I recommend churches consider. Our mission teams perform a variety of tasks such as doing laundry, working in the kitchen, serving in the coffee shop, cleaning the cafeteria; you know, all the mundane tasks Jesus would do. 

This year’s trip in June began like all the others. Our church staff received pictures and videos of the mission team laughing and showing us the “proper” way to fold a fitted sheet. I was away from the office and with my daughter for college orientation but enjoying the good-natured humor from afar. 

But around 5 p.m., all that stopped. 

That’s when I received a call from one of the team members frantically crying that Nick was dying! 

My emotions “red-lined.” I literally could not believe what I had just heard. After composing myself and calming my friend, she explained that Nick had a heart attack, had no pulse, and people were doing CPR with no results. I could hear the sirens wailing in the background the entire time we were talking, but the groans and breaking of my heart were even louder. 

First responders took him to the hospital where they officially pronounced him dead. 

Nick’s wife (Marla), his daughter (Nicole), and granddaughter (Mary Claire) were all on the trip with him. Ridgecrest held a special place in this family’s life. Many precious family memories were made there over the years. When Nick had his heart attack, it was his daughter who began CPR. It’s very likely the last face he saw on this side of Heaven was hers. 

Ridgecrest is eight hours from our church. Our staff immediately held a conference call and decided to send a group of men to bring the mission team home. This was a highly traumatic experience for everyone involved, and we needed to get them back ASAP. 

We held a beautiful memorial service for Nick at our church about a week later. It was one of the most personal services in which I’ve ever participated. Family and friends shared stories, and one of Nick’s grandsons played and sang a song that Nick wrote a few years ago. Nick was honored; God was glorified. 

Later, while processing all that happened, God revealed to me that Nick’s loss was no tragedy. Nick was 75 years old. He was a deacon, sang in the choir, filled in when our music minister was gone, taught a Sunday School class for decades, helped launch our Celebrate Recovery ministry, washed tables, popped popcorn for VBS; he did it all. Faithful husband. Loving father and grandfather. Loyal church member. Humble servant of Jesus Christ. 

Nick’s life is a testimony to those of us who remain. It was a life well lived. He showed us what a joy-filled disciple of Jesus looks like. I can only hope and pray that, like Nick, I finish well. I hope to cross that finish line with sweat on my brow and a smile on my face because I had the honor to be the hands and feet of Jesus. 

During one of his devotionals at Celebrate Recovery, Nick said he wanted to serve God until his final breath. God allowed him to do so. 

That’s no tragedy. That’s grace.

Cliff Marion is pastor of First Baptist Church Covington, Tenn.

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  • Cliff Marion