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‘Triumphant spirit’ prevails at funeral for teens killed by tornado at Ala. high school

ENTERPRISE, Ala. (BP)–Though the pain runs deep over losing eight teenagers to a natural disaster, a triumphant spirit is emerging in Enterprise, Ala., as family and friends bury their loved ones, the head of the Alabama State Board of Missions told Baptist Press.

“The preacher in me will tell you that there is a lot of turmoil down there in the city trying to get things organized,” Executive Director Rick Lance said. “There were a lot of tears — you could just see the tears all the way through, the young people especially — there was a lot of good testimony of how the grace of God is at work in the lives of people in a time of adversity. And yet there was a triumphant spirit.”

Lance attended the joint funeral at Hillcrest Baptist Church March 6 for A.J. Jackson and Ryan Mohler, two best friends who hunted together, played sports together and died together in a hallway at Enterprise High School when a tornado struck.

“They were very good friends and wouldn’t leave each other, and they stayed and tried to help some other people get out including one young girl who was at the funeral in a wheelchair,” Lance said.

Jackson’s grandfather, Joel, is a former director of missions for the Coffee Baptist Association in Enterprise, and his uncle, Mike, works in the evangelism department at the Alabama State Board of Missions and helped lead the funeral service. Lance said Mike Jackson lost his son three and a half years ago and lost his other nephew 13 years ago.

“There were three grandsons in that family and all three of them are now gone,” Lance said. “But Mike spoke from his heart and was very upbeat, very positive, very grace-oriented, and did not try to answer the question ‘Why?’

“He was just trying to point everyone to the future, to the grace of God through Jesus Christ. Although it was very tearful and touching, it also was a testimony of the lives of those two young men and how they had impacted other young people prior to this tornado,” Lance said. “We sang praise songs and hymns, which speak of life, not death.”

The older sisters of Jackson and Mohler appeared together to recount memories of their brothers during the standing-room-only service.

“April Jackson spoke about her younger brother. She talked about him in a very heartwarming way and how proud she was as a big sister, and she spoke of the last time she saw him,” Lance said. “He gave her a big hug and said, ‘I love you.’ The other sister, Kristine Mohler, talked in similar terms about her younger brother.”

Lance urged Southern Baptists to pray that the tight-knit community of Enterprise will continue to be unified in their efforts to recover.

“I would even place before that the prayer that this would be an opportunity for a spiritual awakening among the people, not just young people but adults, about the fragile nature of life — how fragile it is and how quickly our lives can be turned upside down by events way beyond our control,” Lance said.

“And pray that during the grief process the grace of God would help fill the void of grief that they feel and that out of this terrible tragedy a wonderful testimony of God’s love and grace will be realized.”

Also on Tuesday, another Southern Baptist church in Enterprise hosted a funeral for a teenager who gave evidence of a relationship with Christ through his concern for missions.

Mikey Tompkins, 17, had participated in mission trips with the Coffee Baptist Association, and his father alluded to a popular video clip of the son’s goofy dancing that is circulating on the Internet.

“I’ve been asked many times how I can still have a smile,” Bill Tompkins said at his son’s funeral at Open Door Baptist Church. “The answer is: God is still in control. I know without a doubt where my son is. … He’s dancing before Jesus. You all know he is. But hopefully it’s not the one on YouTube.”

Tompkins’ navy casket was topped with his baseball glove, #19 jersey and baseball cap from his days on the school’s baseball team, the Associated Press reported.

Bill Tompkins is a chief warrant officer with the U.S. Army and was deployed to Iraq when his son was killed. He is one of many in the town that borders Fort Rucker coping with the irony of soldiers burying children who were supposedly safe at home, AP noted.

“You expect the possibility to happen to you when you’re overseas and in a war zone,” Ricky Davis, who served with Tompkins in Desert Storm, told AP. “You never think that anything like this is going to happen to your kids, so you have that feeling of ‘My family’s safe. They’re not in a war zone like I am, so they should be fine.’ You just never dream that anything like this could happen.”

Funerals for Michelle Wilson, Katie Strunk and Michael Bowen were held March 5, and services for Peter Dunn and Jamie Vidensek were pending.

As the town mourns, Southern Baptist disaster relief volunteers are still helping to clear the community of debris and repair houses that were damaged by the powerful tornado that struck March 1. A feeding unit is set up in a park owned by First Baptist Church in Enterprise, and crews were planning to serve about 2,000 meals on Thursday, according to state disaster relief coordinator Tommy Puckett.

A 12-person Baptist childcare team working with the United Way was going to set up at Westview Baptist Church to assist the community with childcare needs. Other teams were helping with minor cleanup and placing tarps on damaged homes, Puckett told The Alabama Baptist newsjournal.

Lance told BP that Southern Baptist volunteers have done a “remarkably good job” of clearing trees from people’s homes so that they could safely enter and begin the restoration process.

“One lady told me standing in front of her yard that you could not even tell she had a house until the disaster relief units from Montgomery got there,” Lance said. “She went on to say, ‘These yellow shirts are angels to me.’”

Lance said on behalf of Alabama Baptists that he wanted to thank all Southern Baptists for their prayers. Enterprise was not the only place affected by a vast string of tornadoes last week, but it’s where there greatest concentration of deaths and damage occurred.

“The city of Enterprise is known as the city of progress,” Lance said. “That’s their motto, and they will recover. That high school is a focal point of the community, and it will be rebuilt and they’ll come back bigger, better, greater and stronger.”
With reporting by Grace Thornton of The Alabama Baptist.

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  • Erin Roach