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Teen’s death & subsequent revival leave legacy of faith & ministry

HINDMAN, Ky. (BP)–The flames of revival have cooled nearly five years after being sparked by the death of a popular teenager. But the pastor who baptized nearly 200 people from 1996-98 said a legacy of faith remains in Hindman, Ky.

The death of Merri Kathryn Prater touched a nerve in this eastern Kentucky town of 800. Two dozen people accepted Christ as their personal Savior the Easter after her death on April 3, 1996.

The spiritual move continued for two years, leading to 186 baptisms at First Baptist alone — despite continuing tragedy, including the sudden death of another teen, Casey Caudill, in March 1998 — the son of Mike Caudill, pastor of First Baptist Church. He was the seventh teen to die in Hindman over a 27-month period.

Today, Sunday services at First Baptist attract about 300 worshipers, or 75 more than in 1996. The youth group attracts 25 to 30 each week, about what it was in past years. No longer do standing-room-only crowds pack the sanctuary every Sunday night. And the church has lost touch with many of the young converts.

“The big picture is that ministry keeps going and it’s more refined,” the pastor said. In his life, “My faith has absolutely catapulted.”

Caudill cautions against interpreting the fading of excitement as evidence that the revival had no lasting impact. He points to a flock of young people preparing for careers in ministry as a key sign of God’s activity.

They include a pair of men enrolled at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, one at Boyce Bible School and three women at Georgetown College.

A couple who will graduate soon from Washington Bible College plan to become missionaries in central Asia this summer. Other students have served with the Fellowship of Christian Athletes as summer camp counselors.

“This is the only way some of the kids would have made this kind of response and focused on a world larger than the one they lived in,” Caudill said.

The sweep of revival “came in a big hurry and left in a big hurry,” he said. “That atmosphere was unique for that moment. We’re not trying to duplicate what we had before.”

Though Merri Kathryn Prater wasn’t the first teen to die during the 27-month period, she was one of the best known. A cheerleader at Knott County Central High School, she died six days after a single-car accident on a rain-slickened highway.

A community vigil quickly formed at her bedside at the University of Kentucky Hospital in Lexington, giving her pastor the opportunity to share the gospel with dozens of visitors, including varsity athletes Jarvis Williams and Mark Combs.

Williams and Combs had become good friends with Prater, though she didn’t share their love of parties, drugs and alcohol.

Both young men trace their conversion to those sessions, saying the sight of their 17-year-old friend clinging to life on a respirator shook them out of complacency.

They began to sense a call to ministry, preaching at many youth services that sprang up after Prater’s death.

After graduating from Bible college, both are completing their first year in the school of theology at Southern Seminary in Louisville.

“Even now I find myself reflecting on her death,” said Williams, who keeps pictures of Prater and Casey Caudill in his room. “If it was up to me, I would have quit ministry a long time ago. When I get in ruts — reflecting on her life and what brought me to the Lord and how wonderful that was, her death still gives me a sense of encouragement.

“I wish she was still here and I could see what could have come out of her life,” he added. “I wish God in his providence hadn’t taken her. But his will is perfect and I have to accept it. I rejoice that I will see her in heaven.”

Combs, now the interim youth pastor at Pleasureville Baptist Church in Henry County, also admitted there are times he has wanted to leave the ministry. But when the burdens seem too heavy, he remembers how God’s providence changed him. The lives of all those who died in Hindman are calls to persevere, he said.

“Before, I didn’t believe in God,” he said. “I thought Christians were stupid. I think so often of how being here at Southern Seminary is a work of God’s grace. To me, it’s awesome. The amazing thing is how God has worked all things together for good.”

That statement carries significance because tragedy didn’t take a vacation after 16-year-old Casey Caudill died suddenly from a heart ailment in March 1998. Four months later, active First Baptist youth group volunteer Bobetta Everage died in an accident.

The loss stung her son, Dustin, who had been a lukewarm Christian before Prater’s death. After rededicating his life to Christ, he became part of “Burnt Offering,” a youth band that formed after her funeral. Casey Caudill was also a member. The group later changed its name to “Palette” and was in the midst of recording an album in the younger Caudill’s memory when Everage’s mother died.

Everage later joined “Big Tone,” a four-man, one-woman contemporary Christian group hailing from several eastern Kentucky towns that has signed a contract with Dallas-based True Tunes Records.

“I don’t know of any other way I could have handled it,” Everage said of the faith that helped him withstand the trio of losses. “God has carried me through so much. We’ve seen so many things happen and so many people come to him through this, I give him the glory.

“I’ve just realized he is control,” said Everage, an Eastern Kentucky University student who has had a chance to share his experiences with many on campus. “As long as I believe, I believe he’ll continue to take care of us and we can overcome anything with him.”
(BP) photos posted in the BP Photo Library at http://www.bpnews.net. Photo titles: MERRI KATHRYN PRATER and PRAISE AMID SORROW.

    About the Author

  • Ken Walker