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Humboldt – still strong

May 6, 2018 No Comment

by James Morgan

When tragedy affects a small community, everyone feels it. The highway crash on April 6 that killed 16 people and injured 13 others aboard a bus carrying the Humboldt Broncos junior hockey team is proof. Of course, Humboldt, Saskatchewan is officially a city, but it’s a small city. News reports from Humboldt in the weeks since the tragedy show it’s the kind of place where it’s impossible to walk down a supermarket aisle without meeting a friend, neighbour, or relative. And indeed, that’s true of the churches of Humboldt, among them, St. John’s Lutheran Church.

“It is hard to find anyone in Humboldt who does not have a connection in some way with someone on that bus,” said Pastor Clint Magnus of St. John’s. Patti Durand, a member of the congregation is one of those people. She said there was an “overwhelming sense of helplessness and hopelessness” in the first 72 hours following the crash. She said many people were unsure about what to do or say. Durand said she prayed and asked God to direct her to see what was needed and what opportunities there were to help. She said it was important to “support the supporters,” including the leadership of the Broncos organization, the Mayor and Council, and the teachers at Humboldt’s four schools who had to cope with the sudden death and injury of several of their students. Durand said supporting the supporters turned into feeding people, praying for them, and talking with them to offer support.

Arlene Kish, a longtime area resident who is a member of Faith Lutheran Church in nearby Middle Lake, explained the connections local Lutherans have with Broncos team members, and their families, and there are very few degrees of separation. Kish said her cousin’s son was Tyler Bieber, a local radio sports broadcaster who was traveling on the team bus to that night’s game in Nipawin. The grandparents of deceased Broncos player Jacob Leicht are members of St. John’s in Humboldt and are friends of Kish. She said her grandson played baseball with Evan Thomas, another of the players who was killed, and that critically injured player Morgan Gobeil is the son of their farm fertilizer dealer.

The Gospel was what everyone needed to hear, and it brought much comfort.

Pastor Magnus described the whirlwind of response and reaction he experienced as a pastor. He said when news started arriving about the tragic bus crash, the arena in Humboldt was opened. He and other clergy from churches in Humboldt went over to pray with residents who had started to assemble, and show support, and offer a hug if needed. Magnus said he did not sleep much that night, or for the rest of the following week. On the Saturday, he re-wrote his sermon for Sunday to better address the tragedy and how it was affecting the community. “On Sunday morning, we struggled through the service, but the Gospel was what everyone needed to hear, and it brought much comfort.”

Pastor Magnus’ sermon received almost 10,000 views on Facebook.

Tragedies have a way of piquing interest in the faith, and Pastor Magnus said that is what happened in Humboldt in the days after the bus crash. “Most of the time, outside of the faithful, most people don’t care what the church has to say, but when there is a great tragedy, almost everyone wants to hear what we have to say,” he said. Every week, the sermons at St. John’s are uploaded to the church’s Facebook page. Pastor Magnus said his sermon from the Sunday following the tragedy received nearly 10,000 views.

On the Sunday following the tragedy, the Humboldt Ministerial Group, an organization of local clergy, organized what they thought would be a relatively small prayer vigil at the arena. 7,500 people showed up, including Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe, and the two biggest personalities in Canadian hockey broadcasting: commentator Don Cherry and host Ron MacLean of Hockey Night in Canada. The service was broadcast on national television without commercials or commentary. Pastor Magnus said the vigil was organized as a Christian prayer service and he was happy it remained that way, even with the presence of politicians and celebrities. He said God worked through the event to give a Christ-centred witness to all of Canada.

Humboldt also experienced a series of funerals because of the Broncos bus tragedy. Pastor Magnus officiated at the first of them, which was for broadcaster Tyler Bieber. The 29-year-old play-by-play hockey announcer for CHBO “The Bolt” was baptized at St. John’s and had attended Sunday School and Vacation Bible School there. Two-thousand people attended that funeral at the arena. He said the funeral services brought much-needed healing and closure to the community, adding it gave people “permission,” to go back to work and school, and figure out what the new “normal life” will be. Amid funerals for 16 people, 13 others were in various states of recovery in hospital, most in Saskatoon. Pastor Magnus said that because their family members were spending extended periods of time at the hospital, efforts were made in Humboldt to help cover things like meal expenses.

 

The hard work of keeping the community strong is just starting now that media attention is slowly shifting away.

The Humboldt community will not recover instantly from what happened. Pastor Magnus said many people will seek counselling in the future, but it is important to trust that the Lord will provide the strength everyone needs, and that things will get better as time goes on.

There is proof that trust in the Lord is at work and that the community is more united and resilient. Patti Durand explained that a “Humboldt hug” is a little longer and a little tighter than the average hug and crosses barriers that normally come between people in our culture. “Everyone wrapped their arms around their family, their neighbours, acquaintances, no matter age, gender, race, or how long they had known each other. It was a beautiful thing to witness,” she said, adding that the hard work of keeping the community strong is just starting now that media attention is slowly shifting away.

Pastor Magnus was optimistic explaining that what happened in the community shows there is still a need for the church and for God in people’s lives. “What would have happened here if the Church had not been here to bring the comfort, consolation, and healing of the Gospel?” he asked. He noted that it often seems the survival of congregations is precarious because of declining attendance and aging parishioners, but when a community tragedy strikes, the church is needed to provide what he called the “consolation of the Gospel … the words of eternal salvation in Jesus Christ,” and to “hug a grieving family and tell them they will see their loved ones again through faith in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ” when people are facing tragedy. “I thank God that we were here for a time such as this and that God has worked through us so mightily,” said Pastor Magnus.

Many felt emotional after the Humboldt Broncos bus tragedy because of a common bond as Canadians or with people from small towns. But as Christians, we also feel a common bond because of our shared faith in Jesus Christ. Galatians 2:6 says it perfectly; “Bear one another’s burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ.” Christians in Humboldt and across Canada have been doing that.

James Morgan is a writer in Gatineau, Quebec. A member of Trinity Lutheran Church in Gowanstown, Ontario, he worships with various LCC congregations in the National Capital Region.

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