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Eternal peace

The faith of an Assemblies of God couple is strengthened after their daughters’ deaths

By John W. Kennedy

The three Mayer sisters looked forward to participating in the wedding ceremony of their only brother, Joey. Joey’s fiancée, Bree O’Connor, seemed like a sister to Krista, 19, Nikki, 17, and Jessica, 12.

That Thursday, New Year’s Day 2004, the three sisters took off around 4 p.m. for a 125-mile drive. They had a 6:30 dinner appointment with Bree and other bridesmaids two days before the big event. Parents Joe and Debbie Mayer planned to make the drive to Willmar, Minn., from New Brighton on Friday.

When younger, all three daughters had made commitments to follow Jesus as their Savior. They knew Jesus loved them and they invited non-Christian friends to youth group at Redeeming Love, an Assemblies of God church in Maplewood. They had no qualms about sharing the gospel. Those who knew the girls had no doubt of their confidence in Christ or their compassion for the downtrodden.

Although they each had different interests and talents, the girls had this in common: They made people feel God’s love. They all had mercy on the lonely and outcast. Krista worked as a child-care provider. Nikki, a high school senior, cared for women with physical and mental disabilities.

Around 6 p.m. that Thursday, Krista called Bree from her cell phone to say they would arrive at the restaurant in about half an hour.

But by 8 the girls hadn’t shown up. Bree had repeatedly tried calling Krista and Nikki’s cell phones but couldn’t get an answer. Bree then called Debbie to ask if she had heard anything.

A concerned Joe tracked down the phone number of the hospital in Willmar. The county coroner came on the line with devastating news. All three daughters had been killed in a wreck.

Upon hearing the news Debbie ran out into the snow barefoot, her mind unable to process such a shock. As friends and family arrived to offer comfort, for an hour she remained inconsolable, pacing outside and through the house.

Then her eyes fixed on a bookshelf containing photos taken of the girls during their elementary school years. In the pictures, the daughters wore Debbie’s wedding dress.

“I sensed the Lord saying, ‘They’re My brides now,’ ” recalls Debbie, 52. “I felt great peace because I realized they had gained heaven.”

Later that night, Debbie and Joe experienced further consolation when they surveyed their daughters’ bedrooms. Journals, poems and song compositions revealed the depth of the girls’ walk with the Lord. For an art course, Krista had recorded the importance to her of Philippians 1:21: “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.” Nikki had highlighted Matthew 6:19 (“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth”) in her Bible.

Dealing with sorrow

The reason behind the crash remains a mystery. Nikki, a cautious driver who always wore her seat belt, presumably attempted to pass on an unmarked curve on a dark unfamiliar two-lane road a mile east of Willmar.

The Dodge Lancer sedan Nikki drove collided with a Plymouth Voyager minivan driven by 15-year-old Katelyn Schalmo, accompanied by her mother, Patricia, as the uninjured front-seat passenger. Katelyn, who had her driver’s permit, suffered a broken ankle but no other injuries. The crash site is visible from the Schalmos’ front yard.

Joey and Bree decided to go through with the wedding, only two days after the crash, because they believed the sisters would have wanted it that way. The three bridesmaids spots were left vacant. Instead of a honeymoon, the couple helped with funeral preparations.

A day after the wedding, Joe and Debbie visited Katelyn, who knew she couldn’t have avoided the crash yet still felt traumatized. The Mayers prayed for Katelyn’s burden to be removed.

Four days after the wedding, 2,000 people attended the combined funeral. As he closed the service, Redeeming Love Church Pastor Mike D. Smith reiterated the reality of Philippians 1:21 to the attendees.

“For those who are living for so many other things besides Christ, to die would be a loss,” Smith says. “Only when you live for Christ is it a gain to die.”

As he invited the assembled to make a public profession of faith, about 200 people, primarily teenagers who had known the girls in school, streamed to the altar, along with several relatives of the Mayers.

Just before the trip to the cemetery, Smith stood in the church foyer and asked. “Who gives these girls to their heavenly Bridegroom?”

Joe replied, “Their mother and I.”

In the ensuing weeks and months, a community group represented by members from eight area churches formed to pray for those who had committed to following Jesus as Lord.

“God used Joe and Debbie to connect with these young people,” Smith says.

Six months later, another 20 young people made salvation decisions at a memorial concert in honor of the girls at a public high school. The proceeds benefited Teen Challenge.

Joey, 26, felt the call to ministry after the deaths of his sisters, but it didn’t happen overnight.

“The first three months I really wrestled with my faith,” says Joey, who had to identify his sisters’ remains for authorities. “I was angry at God.”

Joey says he shut down emotionally at first, putting thoughts of his younger siblings out of his mind. Not until his newlywed bride encouraged him to visit the gravesites and verbalize memories of his sisters did he start to recover.

Following graduation from North Central University, where he met Bree, Joey is now youth pastor at Grove Christian Center, an Assemblies of God congregation in Maple Grove, Minn. The couple also sing and play music at the church.

Ministering to the hurting

Despite the pain and stress of a Job-like loss and an instant empty nest, Joe and Debbie say their disaster has resulted in a stronger commitment to each other and to the Lord.

“I’m not in a place of living angry at God,” Debbie says. “I get over being mad when I quickly express it out loud.”

The past year has been most difficult: Friends of Krista are having babies; friends of Nikki are marrying; friends of Jessica are getting driver’s licenses.

But rather than forget the experience, Joe and Debbie have formed Eternal Bride Ministries (www.eternalbrideministries.com). Two or three times a month, Joe and Debbie share their story at other churches in the Upper Midwest. They also minister encouragement to other parents whose children have been killed. Debbie recently released Eternity Calls, a compact disc of her own compositions about and dedicated to her daughters.

“Joe and Debbie are able to show that God really does heal broken hearts,” Smith says. “They have a platform to share the powerful love of God.”

While they have grieved, they understand that what happens in heaven is what matters most.

“We have embraced the reality of eternity,” Debbie says.

“I am sad quite often, because I really miss my girls,” says Joe, 51. “But at the same time, I have a supernatural anticipation and grace that God has placed within us to go on.”

Joe, a certified commercial heating and air conditioning tester, points out that everyone’s days are numbered in God’s Book. While it may not seem fair that some lives are so short, life on earth isn’t the end for those who put their faith in Jesus, he declares.

“It’s more important to trust in the Lord than to try to understand His purposes,” Joe says. “We know the Lord loves us.”


JOHN W. KENNEDY is news editor of Today’s Pentecostal Evangel and blogs at jkennedy.agblogger.org.

E-mail your comments to tpe@ag.org.

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