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Missionaries return ‘home’ following family tragedy

SOUTH ASIA (BP)–One year after the death of their 8-year-old son in a tragic accident, Southern Baptist missionaries John and Shannon Pettit are back where they can continue to heal.

For the Pettits, that place is the mission field.

On Feb. 9, 2005, John and Shannon Pettit were vacationing in Thailand with their family when their son, John (J.D.), fell near a waterfall. He died the following day from injuries sustained in the fall.

After living and serving in South Asia for more than seven years, the couple from Spartanburg, S.C., shared how going back to the mission field was the best decision for them and their two daughters –- Joy, 7, and Simone, 11. They hope for some sense of normalcy and comfort after returning to the place where they raised their son and where people knew him best.

“The time we had with our family in the States after John’s death was very good for us and for them,” Pettit said. “[But] our home community was here [on the mission field].

“We needed to be back at our house, to see the empty spot at the table where John sat,” Pettit said. “We needed to walk past his room, to hold his clothes and lie down on his bed and weep for our son whom we could no longer hold, laugh with or see play.”

The boy’s father recalls the helplessness he felt the day of the accident, but he also has found comfort in his faith.

“One of the things God has shown me through John’s death is our natural human desire for a Savior,” Pettit said.

“I would have given anything for someone to swoop down and save my boy. I did everything I could for that savior to be me, but I failed to save John that day…. I wanted John saved in the here and now, but God saved him in eternity.”

As the family continues to cope with their loss, Pettit describes their current state as “functional.”

“We are able to get our work done, see friends, get out and exercise and the like,” he said. “We are able to laugh, go to the movies and go for runs with our friends and talk about the things of life.

“The grief is not as overwhelming, but I miss him even more as I have no new memories of his antics, and I no longer hear his laughter through the house.”

The Pettits have found some peace in getting back to work and helping with ministry opportunities they hope will impact their community. They also recently became involved in starting a new house church with some of their Christian friends.

“This has been a real blessing,” Pettit said. “The intimacy of a small group worshiping together is very refreshing.”

Shannon Pettit expressed thankfulness for how the Lord has brought many good friends into their life to help care for the family.

“I am thankful that God is not only holding our family together but also has drawn us closer together during this time of grief,” she said.

“I’ve depended heavily on our community, and God has taken care of our girls’ needs. And through ways I don’t understand, they seem to be continuing to grow and even thrive.”

Memories of young John’s commitment to Jesus Christ and his desire to follow God have helped the family cope. They describe him as a strong and determined young boy who went after everything he did with passion. They reflect fondly on his laughter and infectious smile, his red hair and love for running.

“[John] had a special love for God which he showed in many ways, including the way he treated other people,” Shannon Pettit said. “Remembering his faith encouraged me to turn to God for comfort rather than against Him.”

John Pettit recalled that one of his son’s friends from school shared: “When he ran, John could always beat me, but he never made me feel bad about it.” Another young girl said she loved John because he was the only boy in the class who never made fun of her.

It’s these memories that give the Pettits strength as they wait to reunite one day with their son.

“I yearn to rub his head just one more time,” John Pettit said. “I hope in heaven he still has his beautiful red hair.”

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  • Shawn Hendricks