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Through the flood

A family deals with the loss of three children

By Ashli K. O'Connell

The rain started slowly at first. Just a sprinkle, a minor annoyance in the middle of a church softball game. But before long menacing dark clouds from the northwest rolled in and began to pour. Pitcher Ron Masters stepped off the mound as everyone ran for cover. The game was ruined, but perhaps the evening could be salvaged. Making the best of the situation, Ron and his wife, LaVonne, pastors of First Assembly of God in Rapid City, S.D., made plans to visit friends after the rained-out game.

They stopped at home to change out of wet clothes and get their children settled for the night. Fourteen-year-old Karen was put in charge of her four younger siblings. It was still raining heavily, but thunderstorms were common in June in the Black Hills and caused little concern.

After a round of hugs and kisses and a promise to be home soon, Ron and LaVonne set out for the evening.

They were visiting with John and Judy McEachran, their newly hired youth pastors, when the phone rang. "Dad, the creek is flooding up the road," shrieked Karen. By the time they reached home, the television was broadcasting a warning: "Heavy flooding along Rapid Creek. If you live along the creek, seek shelter on higher ground."

The phone rang at 10:30. "Pastor, I think you and your family better leave," said Carroll Boze, then Rapid City assistant chief of police and a member of First Assembly. "It doesn’t sound good for your area. Bring your sleeping bags and come spend the night with us."

How a grieving mother can overcome tragedy

LaVonne Masters knows what it’s like to experience a Mother’s Day after the tragic loss of her children. And while she doesn’t pretend that the loss didn’t shake her to the core, she also knows what it’s like to emerge victoriously from the darkest valley of her life.

In more than 30 years of experience ministering to the hurting, she has shared a five-step process for overcoming grief:

1. Take time to grieve. It’s OK to cry, and it’s OK to grieve in your own way. You don’t have to explain it to anyone. Understand that grief will strike unexpectedly. Be prepared with a plan. For instance, when sorrow overwhelms you, immediately call upon the Holy Spirit to help you and give you strength to carry on. Quote a meaningful Scripture verse.

2. Let the Lord meet your comfort needs. People often unrealistically expect family and friends to meet these needs. The Lord wants to do this for us. Your faith in God will give you solace if you continue to believe during this time. Daniel 6:23 says, "When Daniel was lifted from the den, no wound was found on him, because he had trusted in his God" (NIV). You can make it through the lions’-den times and be sure that every detail of your life will work into something good.

3. Think positively. Make the choice not to dwell on angry, bitter thoughts, but rather focus on your remaining blessings. In the most trying circumstances there are still things for which to be grateful.

4. Memorize and meditate on the Scriptures. The Word brings complete healing. In the agony of sorrow, uncomplicate your life and return to a fundamental relationship with God. Trust in the power of God’s Word to restore you and empower you to live out the rest of your life effectively. (LaVonne’s book on this subject, Memorize and Meditate, was published by Thomas Nelson in 1991.)

5. Continue to live. Attend church. Spend time with family. Go to work. Be with friends. Attend a class. Travel. Take time for recreation – it’s important to spend time involved in activities you enjoy. Reach for new goals and new things. Reach for the future – there is nothing quite like the future God has arranged for those who love Him.

Ron hesitated before replying, "I think we’ll be all right, Carroll." After all, the property had never flooded before. What nobody knew was that the fierce downpour and swollen streams and rivers had caused the failure of Canyon Lake Dam, adding a surge to the flood that was already beginning to lift homes from their foundations.

Suddenly, the phone went dead.

The lights went out.

A rush of water broke through a basement window.

Ron and LaVonne piled their children into their 1963 International Scout with four-wheel drive and backed out of the driveway. But they didn’t get far before the vehicle was floating, tossing and turning amid the crashing waves and debris. The Scout stopped between two huge cottonwood trees and water quickly rose inside. The family was now fighting for their lives.

Eight-year-old Jonathan reached into the front seat and wrapped his arms around his mother’s neck. "I love you, Mother," he told her.

"I love you, too, Jonathan," she said, returning his hug.

"It’s in God’s hands now," said 12-year-old Stephen.

What followed was a race against death. "A living hell," recalls Ron. He was able to pull LaVonne and Karen from the vehicle before the roof disappeared under the waters. Karen held tightly onto 2-year-old Timothy, but the torrent wrenched him from her arms and swept him downstream.

Stephen, Jonathan and 10-year-old JoAnn, all trapped in the back seat, disappeared in the now-submerged vehicle from the sight of their terrified parents and older sister. It was impossible to reach them.

Ron, LaVonne and Karen spent the night in the treetops, dodging debris and praying that the branches would hold as tree after tree succumbed to the crashing waves. In the Masterses’ 1992 book, Some Through the Flood, Ron recalls the chaos that surrounded them: "Trees crashed to the ground. Power lines snapped. Bolts of lightning flashed. Sparks danced nearby. We could be electrocuted. Cars swept by. A large propane tank hissed and spun around as gas escaped. Boards from disintegrating homes, partial walls, campers, boats and uprooted trees raced by, some within inches of us. Once in a flash of lightning I saw the body of a man pass by quickly and out of sight. … Survival became all-consuming."

In the morning, as the waters began to recede, a cry came from the vehicle. JoAnn had miraculously survived more than five hours in the submerged Scout thanks to an air pocket in the back top corner. Tragically, her brothers had suffocated beside her. Ron pulled his terror-stricken little girl to safety. "Daddy," she said, "God wants me to be a missionary."

"He surely must, honey, He surely must."

Workers from the National Guard arrived soon in rescue boats and took the Masterses — now a family of four — to a hospital to be checked for injuries. A family from church took them to their home. They rode out the next few days in shock and numbness as they made plans to bury their two oldest sons. Little Timothy’s body would not be found for two weeks.

The community of Rapid City suffered with them. Within six hours the June 9, 1972, downpour had dumped 15 inches of rain. The National Weather Service reported 238 people killed with 3,000 more injured. Damage totaled $160 million with 1,335 homes and 5,000 automobiles destroyed. Nineteen families at First Assembly were hit by the flood, losing homes or possessions.

The Rapid City flood is considered one of the worst natural disasters in American history. Ron and LaVonne, devastated by the loss of their beloved young sons, were faced with a choice: Would they let this destroy them or would they survive this ultimate test of faith?

Ron, LaVonne, Karen and JoAnn chose the latter. They made a choice to believe that their God was still a good God. They made a choice to believe He would work all things together for good in the end. And they made a choice to keep living. "We had to choose to think positive," says LaVonne. "And sometimes we had to choose it a thousand times a day."

God has honored their faithfulness. This family has not only survived — they have thrived. With a ministry to the hurting that has touched countless lives over the last 30 years, they are a shining example of Romans 8:28, "And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose" (NIV).

Today, all four are serving in full-time ministry with the Assemblies of God. Ron and LaVonne, now senior pastors at First Assembly in Sidney, Mont., traveled extensively for six years sharing their story and ministering in Bible camps, family and marriage retreats, pastors seminars and church growth clinics.

The flood experience opened doors for ministry that the family could have never imagined. "God told us He wanted us to help His hurting people," says Ron. "When you try to minister to people who are in the midst of a very difficult situation, they look at you and think, What do you know about pain? When we share our story, they realize that we know about pain and darkness, and they are ready to listen and be ministered to."

Ron and LaVonne were amazed at the number of people they met as they traveled who are carrying some type of grief. Ron refers to it as the "grieving majority."

"Most people have lost somebody at some point in their lives," he says. The Masterses have found healing through helping these people, and they encourage those who are hurting to let God use them to reach others. "If you’ve gone through a divorce, you may be the perfect person to help someone else who is going through that," Ron says. "Or if you’ve been abused, or lost a child, God can use you to help someone else in that situation. Let God take a negative experience and bring something positive out of it."

JoAnn, having never forgotten the call to the mission field that came while she was submerged in the floodwaters, followed her call to Tinian, the second most populated island in the U.S. Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands. She and her husband, Reid Ellis, pastor a Micronesian Assemblies of God church and run a Christian school on the island. They have two daughters: Victoria, 6, and Elizabeth, 4.

Karen, also credentialed with the Assemblies of God, is a children’s pastor at Westgate Chapel in Seattle, where she lives with her husband, Timothy, and children Jonathan, 17, Christie, 14, and Jamie Lynn, 10.

Pictures of Stephen, Jonathan and Timothy now hang on Ron and LaVonne’s "family wall," though for 20 years they did not because the pain was too great. "Many times I stop and look at those pictures," says Ron. "Sometimes I talk to them and say, ‘One of these days, boys, Mom and Dad are coming too.’ "

Perhaps the most tangible way they keep the memory of the boys alive is through a school founded in 1977 in their honor. Memorial Christian School, K-6, still operates out of First Assembly in Rapid City as a living memorial to all the children killed in the Rapid City flood.

Stephen, Jonathan and Timothy will never be forgotten. "When I reach heaven my heart will flip because I’ll recognize the unison voices of my three sons," LaVonne says. "The joy will be ecstatic – all the pain of the past forgotten. Eternity will be ours."

Ashli K. O’Connell is assistant editor of the Pentecostal Evangel.

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