As if glued by grief, they hung to the edges of the high school walls. The colorful paper strips for the memory chain sat in untouched stacks next to photos of the suddenly deceased. Grief counselors and teachers stood by ready to talk, but the young people gripped by shock did not even talk to each other, overwhelmed by the loss of their quarterback Eli Grow, whose smiling presence graced the halls on the preceding Friday. They wore jerseys, school colors, tears and an unusual silence. They hurt for a good life lost far too soon. Their innocence shattered by an untimely accident. Eighteen days before graduation the happy noise of senior celebrations subsided into mournful sighs, tearful sniffles, hushed whispers, and vacant stares.
A student’s voice arose quietly from the line of Tullahoma football jerseys, “Do you want to have a prayer?” Without words, seven boys moved away from the secure walls, clasped each other’s hands, huddling for prayer. Their sacred formation broke grief’s inertia as a flood of hurting students moved silently into the safety of a prayer circle. The teammates opened their huddle extending their hands and welcoming every student. Clasping hands, the circle expanded to wrap unevenly around the atrium.
A tearful lineman called out the play, inviting all who wanted to remember Eli to lift up their prayer or remembrance. A good funeral does three things: it acknowledges loss, it celebrates life, and it turns to God in faith. Without teacher or preacher guidance, the students did all three. These grieving young folks lifted their hearts honestly to God speaking of their hurt, God’s presence, and Eli’s smile, warmth, work-ethic and faith.
A lone athlete asked others to pray. Seven teammates made a huddle. Every student rushed in. Perhaps a hundred students moved away from the isolating edges of grief, taking hands in a prayer formation. Prayer became a catalyst, giving voice to inner turmoil and releasing action. Leaving the dangerous sidelines of isolating grief, students stepped onto the field to engage in grief-work: kneeling to pen sympathy cards for the Grow family, filling message boards, creating links for the colorful paper memory chain, talking to each other, weeping, hugging, and engaging with the grief counselors and teachers. Prayer changed the room from isolated individuals mourning alone into a community confronting their loss and comforting each other. Mournful wallflowers now stood facing each other, hugging each other, helping each other, ministering to each other, and offering memories and sympathy to the Grow family. Prayer changes everything.
Let us lift up the Grow family in prayer and deed. Let us lift up our students, especially our seniors, dealing with such sudden tragedy in what should be a happy season. Let us lift up people reacquainted with their own personal grief by this sad event. Let us be the church upholding each other and our community with our prayers, presence, gifts, service and witness.
It was my difficult privilege to spend all day listening to and clarifying emotions for hurting teens at our High School on Monday. I left drained but hopeful and inspired for our town and our teens. We foolishly measure even children by accomplishments on athletic fields. Friends, those seven young men who huddled for prayer led a school into healing. That is character that matters. Monday night, at a student led prayer vigil, student after student read scripture, spoke of Eli’s faith, and called us all to live into our faith. After witnessing these young people’s faith in action I believe our chant “I Believe that we can win.”