It’s the worst nightmare any parent of a young Mormon missionary would have to face; learning your child who has dedicated two years of their lives away from home for church service will never return. Last night, not just one, but two families received this devastating news. Today, our world-wide community of members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are grieving for the tragic loss of two exemplary young men struck down in their prime on a rural road in Texas. As more information unfolds about the fatal accident and those who lost their lives, the tragedy only seems to compound. The painful ripple effect of this tragedy is unmeasurable.
The story of Elder Trevor Reinholt Strong, age 22 of Taylorsville Utah is particularly poignant. He had actually completed his full two years of mission service. He could have been safely home in Utah enjoying his family and friends and making plans for his future on the night a reckless driver collided with his bicycle and two additional cycling missionary companions. But, Elder Strong had chosen to extend his service just 3 more weeks in order to attend a baptism of one of the families he had been teaching. His family in Utah was eagerly expecting to have him sitting at their Thanksgiving table in just a few short days. Trevor’s twin, also serving a mission, will be deprived the joyful reunion with his brother for the holidays as they had planned. Instead, the Strong family will unite under somber circumstances.
Elder Derek Jason Walker, 20, of Fairfield, Idaho, was also killed in the accident. He had just given a motivational talk that evening to a large group of missionaries, as well as receiving a new leadership position in the mission. Described as a “top-notch” young man, Elder Walker leaves behind a large network of grieving family and friends and untold stories of heartache.
The third missionary struck in the accident was Elder Zachary Todd Harris, 19, of Huntsville, Alabama. He had recently begun his mission service. Initially transported to a hospital in critical condition, he has since been released. As Elder Harris recovers from this horrific event and loss of his companions, his injuries will no doubt extend much farther than physical wounds.
Members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints believe in a loving Heavenly Father who is in command of all things. Even when things seem at their very bleakest, God has a Plan. But, how do we process a tragedy like this in light of God’s Plan? How do we make sense of it all? It’s impossible not to have questions, all revolving around one word…”Why?”. Why do such bad things have to happen to such good people? Why didn’t God simply save these good young men who were giving selfless service on His behalf? Why couldn’t one of the bikes have gotten a flat tire before reaching that fateful spot of road? or Why weren’t they delayed just a few more minutes at their evening meeting? or Why couldn’t they have taken a different route home? or Why couldn’t the driver of that automobile have made so many different choices? Yes, the list of “Why’s” could include a million different scenarios that would have prevented this event. But it didn’t.
One of the most masterful sermons on this subject was given by the late President Spencer W. Kimball, 12th President of the Church, entitled “Tragedy or Destiny?”. At the time of this talk, Kimball was serving as a young apostle and was asked to officiate at a special memorial service held in the Tabernacle in Salt Lake City in October 1955. The circumstances were somber indeed. Due to adverse weather conditions and a piloting error, a United Airlines DC-4 crashed into Medicine Bow Peak, Wyoming killing all 64 passengers and crew on board. Among the victims were five members of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, and their travelling companions who had chosen to return privately from a recent transatlantic European choir tour. This tragic event had a devastating effect on not only the friends and family of the victims, but the general membership of the LDS church. People could not comprehend the “Why?” of this tragedy in light of the tremendous service these good people had just accomplished. Elder Kimball’s response was so powerful and touching it was later published into a pamphlet and widely distributed (now out of print). His message is just as powerful and applicable today as it was over 50 years ago:
. . .Could the Lord have prevented these tragedies? The answer is, Yes. The Lord is omnipotent, with all power to control our lives, save us pain, prevent all accidents, drive all planes and cars, feed us, protect us, save us from labor, effort, sickness, even from death, if he will. But he will not.
We should be able to understand this, because we can realize how unwise it would be for us to shield our children from all effort, from disappointments, temptations, sorrows, and suffering.
The basic gospel law is free agency and eternal development. To force us to be careful or righteous would be to nullify that fundamental law and make growth impossible.
If we looked at mortality as the whole of existence, then pain, sorrow, failure, and short life would be calamity. But if we look upon life as an eternal thing stretching far into the premortal past and on into the eternal post-death future, then all happenings may be put in proper perspective. . .
. . .There are people who are bitter as they watch loved ones suffer agonies and interminable pain and physical torture. Some would charge the Lord with unkindness, indifference, and injustice. We are so incompetent to judge! . . .
. . .Had I limitless power, and yet limited vision and understanding. . .I surely would have felt to protect Christ from the agony in Gethsemane, the insults, the thorny crown, the indignities in the court, the physical injuries. I would have administered to his wounds and healed them, giving him cooling water instead of vinegar. I might have saved him from suffering and death, and lost to the world his atoning sacrifice.
I would not dare to take the responsibility of bringing back to life my loved ones. Christ himself acknowledged the difference between his will and the Father’s when he prayed that the cup of suffering be taken from him; yet he added, “Nevertheless, not my will but thine be done.” [Luke 22:42.]. . .”
. . . “God controls our lives, guides and blesses us, but gives us our agency. We may live our lives in accordance with his plan for us or we may foolishly shorten or terminate them.
I am positive in my mind that the Lord has planned our destiny. Sometime we’ll understand fully, and when we see back from the vantage point of the future, we shall be satisfied with many of the happenings of this life that are so difficult for us to comprehend.”
(excerpts from “Tragedy or Destiny“, Elder Spencer W. Kimball, Oct. 1955)
It is important to remember that Elder Strong and Elder Walker died joyful in the act of giving service. They both chose to go to Texas in answer to a sacred call to serve their King and Savior, Jesus Christ. As Elder Kimball has beautifully explained, in the grand Plan of God, their tragedy also is part of a higher destiny. It is not hard to comprehend that they have been called to serve in another great work “beyond the veil” of this mortality. Someday, the full perspective of last night’s events will be revealed. Until then, let us honor their memory by reflecting on their willingness to give their last full measure of devotion to the cause and God they loved. In life and in death, they pressed forward with faith.