when I drive through Smith County Mississippi by the Lorena Baptist Church cemetery, I often find a way to stop and go see one of the best friends I ever had. Kelley Nacole Hawkins. She died the night of September 30, 1995 in a one car auto accident.
Kelley was 18 years old I think. A strong Christian from an amazing and unique family, she was a freshman at Jones Junior College in Laurel Mississippi. She grew up near Raleigh, in a little place called Lorena. She loved kids, and God did they love her.
When we lose someone, so young, it just has a way of messing us all up. She ran into a bridge in a curve on a back road in Mississippi, and she was gone. The next 2 days were a mess. Adults, college and high school kids, and children- we just didn’t know what to do. This girl had been the light of our lives. And she was gone in a flash.
but somehow she was still near and present…
i remember when kimberly carr called me late that night. I was asleep in my dorm, she called frantically crying….kelley was kim’s roommate. she thought it was all a nightmare.
but it wasn’t, yet somehow, it was.
i drove into church the next morning after crying all night. i told my sunday school class of 8 kids that she had died. they all knew her from youth camps. kelley was a light to our lives. i met her during her senior year of high school, and more than any single person who’s ever lived, she’s the reason I went into youth ministry. God used her during thanksgiving 1994 to slap some sense into me. She asked me, ‘if you’re supposed to be a minister, what are you doing playing college football?’ she was just blunt and beautifully brash like that. i transferred away from the air force academy less than 2 months later to become a youth pastor.
when i got to her parent’s house that Sunday afternoon after church, it was the worst moment of my life. people were crying everywhere. we were stuck in long embraces with each person we encountered, even if we didn’t know them. i volunteered to drive down to her college dorm and retrieve her belongings. Again, just uncontrollable weeping as the girls in the dorm loaded her stuff into my truck.
the line at the funeral home wrapped all around city blocks in our tiny town. i was a pall bearer at the funeral. i was asked to lead the singing of amazing grace at the service. these moments are forever etched in my memory…. in the south, when you sing amazing grace, we almost always would add an extra verse, just singing, “praise god, praise god, praise god, praise god” to the tune. I looked down at Mr. Ted and Mrs. Charlotte, her parents. And at Tracy her sister. I didn’t know if we should sing the last verse or not. Mr. Ted nodded at me. Tears were everywhere. her casket was right in front of us. and we sang that verse. her parents sang it. her sister. and so many of her friends.
our minister spoke. he held up a piece of paper Kelley had clutched in her hand moments after the accident during her final breaths. It was sermon notes from her bible. her blood was on the paper. later on, i looked at it. several things she’d written down: a couple of verses , some thoughts…and my phone number.
it rained as we walked out of church to get in the truck to follow the casket to the graveside. national news broke over the radio, oj simpson was found innocent by a jury. the procession was long. it rained during the graveside service best i can remember. after our pastor, rev. doug pierce spoke, we walked by and i just grabbed onto her parents.
days went by. about a month later, i asked her dad, mr. ted, if i could ride with him on his postal route. he’s been a mail carrier in scott county mississippi for a long time. it was such a special day. we talked about her. he said not a minute went by he didn’t think about her. the same is probably still true today.
I graduated college and took a job in another state. Her family was there for me all along, but we saw each other less and less. 1998 was one of my toughest years. I was lonely in a new state with few friends, and working at a job where i was under a lot of stress. I would cry myself to sleep many nights, and i wasn’t even sure why. often, it would go back to being angry at God over Kelley’s death.
in september 1998, I was really sinking. I had a dream one night, and Kelley was in it. She was glowing, wearing white, joyful, vibrant. She simply said this, “John David, you’ll be ok. I’ve seen it.” that’s so Kelley. Even with the gulf between this life and the next, she still kicked my butt and got me in gear.
here’s some Steve Stockman said in remembrance of Rich Mullins.
How I longed to spend more time with you
Maybe now someday that time will come
You’ve left me a legacy to think on til then
Thoughts to fill my life and then some
Someone said you know a saint
by how alive they make you feel
Not by how much they show you
but by how little they conceal
You left us with broken hearts and souls
Our hope is feebly attempting to temper it
We lost so much more than skin and bone
You are the world as best I remember it.
One of the best friends I ever had. Kelley changed my life forever. And the lives of literally thousands of students who have crossed my path in youth ministry. we miss you Kelley. thank you for loving me enough to tell me the truth always. I’ll never forget watching Jungle Book with you. And then you kicking my butt into this ministry world that i love so much. Everyday I’m living the dream…. and you’re a part of that.