I get hundreds of texts, messages and alerts each day on my phone.
Last Friday, while I was driving a car packed to the brim with youth staff, headed to a weekend Youth Ministry conference in Columbus Ohio, my phone buzzed. I waited until we stopped for lunch to check the messages.
As I scrolled through the updates about NFL Free Agency, Emails about T-shirts and Facebook notifications about trivial matters I saw the worst text a youth pastor can get.
“Emily Hilliard died last night in a car accident.”
I run a small summer camp in Western PA called Suncrest. I’ve done everything out there. Counseled, spoke, directed, cleaned toilets, mowed the grass on a tractor twice my age and most recently sat on the board as the President. I’ve been out there since 1995 in some capacity or another. I have seen over a thousand kids come through that camp in that span of time. I do my best to remember all of them but it is very difficult.
When I found out it was Emily who died I was wrecked.
Emily was a great girl who had come to camp for many years. She was one that I distinctly remembered. She was a sweet, kind presence, always positive and compassionate. She was so enthusiastic about camp. She loved my stupid T-shirts and would hang out with her friends at the Hardiewear booth for hours listening to my crazy stories with a smile from ear to ear.
She was a senior in college this year; 22 years old. She was driving and hit black ice.
As a pastor I am constantly surrounded by death. I preached the funeral of my father in law, and both of his parents. I have buried friends, loved ones and complete strangers.
I kept my composure as I walked into the viewing today. I told myself that I could do it; that death is inevitable for us all and ultimately Emily knew Jesus.
There were so many people there (as there usually are when the deceased is young). There was so much time to think as I waited in line. I gazed at pictures of Emily, barely realizing that she was gone.
As I made it to the casket I looked at her mother who I did not know and said “I’m David Hardie, I’m so sorry for your loss.”
Instantly her inquisitive countenance turned to one of excitement as she said “David Hardie! Emily loved you! She loved that camp. She loved Hardiewear and she was always wearing your shirts. She showed me pictures of your baby on Facebook, you look just like your profile picture. Thank you for everything that you did for her and those kids over the years. It’s because of that camp that we know where she is today.”
I bit back the tears. I eked out a few kind words to family, hugged a few former campers and ran to my car.
I lost it. I wept bitterly; heaving and wheezing as if I was trying to get some infection out of my inner self. I couldn’t catch my breath. It would have been ugly for another person to behold.
I called my mom on the way home. When I walked in the door I grabbed my sons and held them as I cried. I’m sure that they were confused but they took it well. Malachi, my 3 month old even smiled at me.
Death is hard for us pastors. People look to me with questions and so often I can’t give specific ones. I do give truth and comfort, but I don’t know why Emily had to die at 22 years of age with so much life left to live.
However, I do know that all of those late night planning sessions, the endless hours getting the camp ready, the battles with bees, snakes and spiders, the heat, the stress and the like were all worth it because Emily was impacted. Standing by her casket I received a deep clarity about the value of ministry and the depth of the love of Christ.
We will honor Emily by creating a scholarship in her memory that will allow kids who might not have the money to go to camp. They will hear about Jesus and hopefully someday they can meet Emily in Eternity.
We will miss Emily Hilliard. Today the Suncrest Family mourns one of our own.
This is a video that Emily Created as a Camp Promo in 2010.