STATESVILLE, N.C. (AP) -- Pastor Tim Stutts’ voice cracked during Sunday service at Front Street Baptist Church in Statesville as he remembered six church members who died in a bus crash last week.
Barbara Morrison and her husband Randy loved to serve homemade spaghetti, he said. Marsha McLelland was actively involved in a school-based Christian club for children. And Cloyce Matheny loved serving orphans in Peru with his late wife.
“At the heart of missions is the glory of God,” Stutts said. “They spent their lives making much of the glory of God.”
The six were among 17 members of the church’s Young at Heart Seniors Ministry who were returning from a religious gathering Wednesday when the front tire of their bus failed on Interstate 40 near Knoxville, Tenn. The bus careened across a median, causing a fiery crash with other vehicles that left eight people dead and several others hospitalized.
In the wake of the deaths, Stutts and other church leaders urged the congregation to stay close to each other and to God. .
“We know there are lots of hearts that are mourning this morning and grieving and questions that we just haven’t quite found the answers for just yet,” said Scott Mitcham, chairman of deacons at Front Street. “But we’ve got to keep our chins up, and we want to rely upon the Lord for our strength.”
Among the dead from Front Street Baptist: 95-year-old Matheny, 69-year-old Brenda Smith, 62-year-old McLelland, 73-year-old John Wright, and the Morrisons, both 66. Wright was from Mocksville. The others were from Statesville.
Troopers say Randy Morrison was behind the wheel of the church-owned bus when the crash happened. He shared driving duties with his wife, Barbara, and with Wright. Each had valid commercial driver’s licenses, according to the N.C. Department of Transportation.
During Sunday’s service, more than 400 members packed the church to offer mutual support and to hear a message of hope, although several declined to comment to the media afterward.
People in the pews and on the stage wiped tears from their eyes. Eight white roses, each in their own slender vases and mixed in with memorial candles, sat on the altar to represent those who died. A church bulletin detailed the lives of those dead and injured with bulleted lists and pictures.
The members of the Young at Heart Seniors Ministry were returning from the 17th Annual Fall Jubilee in Gatlinburg, Tenn. – a three-day gathering of thousands of “mature and senior believers,” according to its website.
Stutts suggested God knew what was going to happen, which is why his sermon last Sunday addressed trials and suffering. “I had to go back last night to listen to my own message,” Stutts said. “This is the calm before the storm. This is God preparing his church.”
Stutts said it wasn’t until Saturday night that he had time to quietly reflect on the deaths and why certain people died. He said all had a “heart and passion for missions,” adding that the best way to honor those who had died would be to follow their example.
He also encouraged members to find comfort among each other and with God.
“The valleys are pretty low,” he said. “But God has promised to never leave us, to never forsake us, to never turn his back on us and to never walk away from us.”
Larry Phillips, director of the North Carolina Baptists who was visiting the church on Sunday, also encouraged members to seek help if certain grief symptoms such as sleep problems and anxiety become “consistent and debilitating.”
“Those in that bus last week, they were not alone. Christ was with them,” he said. “They’re safe, we’re safe as he moves us through this journey together.”