COLUMNS

Melissa's friends lead the way

stephanieziebarth

The murder of local teen Melissa Collins has deeply affected her entire community (http://www.heraldmailmedia.com/news/breaking/man-charged-with-murder-of-missing-stepdaughter/article_e97cb1d8-ffab-11e4-8884-2bb6a437c918.html). Her death at the hands of her own stepfather–someone in a role intended to protect her–is a prime example of evil in the world. For those who know her, the pain is almost overwhelming.

Melissa was in the 4.12 Leadership Training Program at Joy El (www.joyelgeneration.org), where my family serves. She was a five-year student, set to graduate from the program on Thursday, May 21"the very day her murder came to light.

The 100 students in the 4.12 program spend lots of time together"weekends, weeks, whole summers. Some are more involved than others"Melissa among them. These students become best of friends. So Melissa's initial 'disappearance,' followed by the shocking news of her death, was a huge blow to her camp friends.

Thursday was one of the most surreal days of my life. We on the Joy El staff were reeling from the news ourselves"grieving"while also trying to 'manage' the crisis on an organizational level. We were fielding constant calls, texts, Facebook messages; orchestrating and implementing a plan to get out the word as sensitively, honorably and effectively as we could. We were checking on students in schools, via phone calls, via their mentors. We were figuring out what to do with the scheduled graduation celebration that night, when Melissa was to be among those sharing her testimony and being honored for her five years of hard work and ministry. We were personally calling all those who had stated they would be in attendance.

In the midst of the constant activity, there were pauses for prayer and tears"and sometimes they weren't pauses. For many, the prayer and tears were just flowing along with the activity.

We turned the graduation celebration into a time of grieving. Anyone connected to Melissa (primarily through Joy El) was welcome to meet at our worship center to grieve, pray, cry, laugh, and remember. It turned into a beautiful evening.

One of the many highlights of the evening came during a group prayer time. There was certainly prayer for justice on Thursday. But there was more than that. These wonderful teenagers began praying for their friend's killer. They prayed that Ernie Chase would repent, that he would find God, and that he would receive forgiveness. The evening was a bittersweet time of fellowship and prayer for those who loved Melissa.

Then Friday was another hard day (there are many yet to come). When the chilling details of Melissa's death came to light (http://www.heraldmailmedia.com/news/local/court-documents-hagerstown-teen-beaten-strangled-to-death-by-stepfather/article_e066d724-008f-11e5-b37b-8bd941cf5ec9.html), those who loved her had more to process.

I had mixed feelings about sharing those details with my children, who all knew Melissa (my older daughter more than the other two). Of course I wondered whether it was too much. Yet, thanks (and no thanks) to social media, I knew they would find out eventually, so I waited for the natural time with each of them.

For Abigail, my older daughter, that time came last night as she drove up to camp, with me in the passenger seat beside her.

'Tell me,' she said. 'I'm going to hear it anyway.'

So I told her.

And after she had heard that Melissa's stepfather had strangled Melissa, dragging her down to the basement, where he wrapped a cord around her neck After Abigail heard that he had gone more than once to make sure she was dead, and that he had moved and hidden her body from the police This is what she said:

'Cheryl told us a way to get letters to him.' (Cheryl is another of Melissa's friends.)

'To whom? Melissa's stepdad?' I asked.

'Yes, we can write him letters and get them to him to let him know we're praying for him, and that he can find forgiveness in God. Is that OK?'

I paused. I reflected. I processed.

I remembered how I had reacted when I first read the gruesome details of Melissa's death. I had been like the psalmist, who shared his heart, his anger, his emotions freely with God. I had railed in my grief, 'Lord, I am praying for Ernie Chase! I am praying for him because it is the right thing to do! But I am disgusted beyond words by him!'

Melissa's friends were making plans to write this man letters of encouragement.

I answered Abigail: 'Yes, I think that would be wonderful. I think that would be very powerful.' I added, 'Just don't sign your last name.'

So, let us pray for Melissa's loved ones, especially her families and boyfriend. Let us pray for justice. And let us pray for Ernie Chase.

Finally, let us thank God for the wonderful teenagers in our lives, who sometimes lead the way.

Melissa would be so proud.