BY HOLLY MCCRAY
TAHLEQUAH — Grieving college students found a place of solace Sept. 18 at the Wesley Foundation for Northeastern State University after five peers died in a local wreck.
A pickup truck crash late Sept. 17 killed Donovan Caldwell of Muskogee; Jessica Swartwout, McAlester; Drake Wells, Thackerville; Lily Murphy, Gentry, Ark.; and Rhianna Seely, Salina, Okla.
All five were NSU freshmen, ages 18 and 19.
United Methodist campus minister Shana Dry learned of the tragedy from the Wesley’s intern, Abigail Shaw-Bolen. Together they prepared and opened the Wesley building beside campus, filling the space with candlelight and soft Christian music, offering snacks.
“If somebody wanted to pray or scream or be in the Presence, we were available,” said Rev. Dry.
Students retreated into the safe space before and after a student-led candlelight vigil on the Tahlequah campus that Monday evening. Another ceremony was Wednesday.
Dry said NSU students who asked her to pray with them asked God especially to give peace and comfort to the families and friends, including the roommates, of those who died.
The young adults “were very emotional that week,” Dry said, “having discussion groups and lighting candles. School had only been in session four weeks.” The Wesley’s Wednesday lunch drew “a very, very big crowd.”
Among those who died, no two came from the same hometown, she made note. “Those five probably built that friendship within the last week or two. It was so new.”
Although new to college life, three of them already had participated in some of the Wesley’s activities.
The Wednesday lunches had attracted them, Dry said. The ministry also introduced itself by serving “walking tacos” during NSU’s welcome week, before fall classes started.
She reflected, “These kids were trying to find a church home, trying to find out how to be involved, how to be a freshman.” Total undergraduate enrollment is about 7,000 at NSU, in northeastern Oklahoma.
The campus minister expressed regret. “I didn’t get a connection quick enough with them.”
“You thought you had more time,” responded Abigail, an NSU senior serving her second year as the Wesley intern.
Inside the UM campus ministry center, a sign declares “God loves you.” Dry said she greets students with “I love you” and “God loves you.” She said they reply similarly.
She found comfort in knowing all the students who died had faith backgrounds.
“I felt empathy for those families and for the NSU student body, what they were going through. I know the anguish,” she said. Her brother died at age 32, and she adopted his daughter.
“They had to pick up the pieces and move forward.”
At the end of “that very long day” Sept. 18, Dry went home and hugged all her children.
“I thought, my goodness, those families are having to plan funerals when they had just packed up their children to go to school.”
Families soon quietly removed personal belongings from dorm rooms, Dry said. Now students’ prayer requests have expanded to more subjects.
Interest has swelled in the Wesley’s Wednesday lunches. “We served over 248 today,” she said on Oct. 4. “We have almost tripled what we served last year.” She spoke appreciatively of the United Methodist church groups that supply meals and send checks to purchase food.
“It’s amazing what God is doing,” she summed up. NSU students “can be who they are at the Wesley. They really feel loved and accepted.”
In Oklahoma, churches’ Apportionment giving supports more than a dozen United Methodist college ministries. Learn more at www.okumc.org/campus_ministry.
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