Sometimes events and opportunities seemingly come out of nowhere. I do, however, fully acknowledge that while certain things seem to just happen, that there is no such thing as coincidence in God's economy.
About three weeks ago I received an e-mail from the Clay County Sheriff's Office. They were hosting a woman who is traveling throughout the state sharing of the dangers of drunk driving. The reason for the contact to the church was to see if we would be able to help with some of the costs of housing this woman during her stay in the county.
Our response was to cover the entire hotel cost this week just to ensure that she would be able to come and those in the community could hear the story. After committing to this, we were also offered the opportunity to host her here at the church one evening for a community assembly (much like what was to happen in the schools.) We agreed.
Well, after scheduling this event to be held in our church facility for the community, I began to read more about this woman. Her name is Renee Napier. She used to live in Pensacola and now lives in St. Petersburg. In 2002, her daughter Meagan and Meagan's friend Lisa were driving home from a night at the beach when their vehicle was hit at high speed by a Jeep driven by 24 year old Eric Smallridge.
Eric's blood-alcohol level was more than twice the legal limit.
It was May 11, 2002. This was Mother's Day weekend.
The story is terrible and the trial that was to follow put all the details in the forefront for the family members of Meagan, Lisa and Eric to re-live over and again.
About 18 months later, Eric was sentenced to two 11 year sentences in prison, to be served one after the other, for DUI Manslaughter. That sentence was changed to two 11 year sentences to be served consecutively following the request of the families of Meagan and Lisa at a later hearing.
I read all about this on Renee's website (www.duipromise.com or www.themeagannapierfoundaton.com) and noticed one word that was prominent on the site. That word was "FORGIVENESS." This piqued my interest.
I had Renee's email address from the Sheriff's office, so I wrote her an email explaining that we were so proud to host her, but asking about this concept of forgiveness. I mentioned that as believers, we understand forgiveness (or at least say we do) and that I have preached about the revolutionary power of it. I asked if she had a faith background and wondered if that led her to be able to promote forgiveness in such a way.
It wasn't long before my phone rang. Renee had called me. She said she was writing an email response and decided that a phone call would be better. We talked for quite some time and she shared how her faith in Jesus Christ was what enabled and empowered her to forgive Eric. I was so encouraged and overwhelmed by this. To hear a mother that had lost one of her children in such a way offer true forgiveness was incredible.
The story does not end there.
Forgiveness is contagious. Lisa's family offered this as well. Renee's other children did too. Yet, I don't want you to think it was easy. As Renee shares, each person came to be able to do this in their own time. It meant burying the bitterness and removing the anger and letting God empower them. Apart from Jesus Christ, this story of forgiveness would not happen.
Renee was so excited to come here to Orange Park. They had been trying to figure out how to get their message into the churches, knowing they would have more freedom to share about Jesus in these venues.
It's funny. Apparently Baptist churches and DUI stories don't seem to connect. Apparently, some churches don't want anything to do with the message of alcohol or DUI awareness. Maybe some just don't want to admit that many in their congregation may drink grape juice for the Lord's Supper, but drink the harder stuff in their living rooms.
I am not that naive.
I knew our teenagers (yes, our good Baptist teenagers) face the temptations of drinking and partying all too often and need to be reminded of these dangers. Even if the message is to plan ahead and have a designated driver, it may just save a life. Oh, and I readily admit this message is not just for teenagers.
However, deeper than the DUI message is one that simply must be heard by all. The revolutionary power of forgiveness. Forgiveness is so mis-defined today. Forgiveness is not saying to another person "What you did to me is OK." It's not. It's not OK that Eric Smallridge drove drunk and killed two young ladies. That's never going to be OK.
Forgiveness goes much deeper. It's being able to say "What you did is not OK, but I choose not to hold it against you."
Lives have been changed through Renee's and others' forgiveness in this story. Eric has come to know Christ personally as well. He will be the first to tell you that there are many "chain-gang conversions" in jail. Yet, after spending time with him and t alking to the deputies assigned to him this week, it seems that Eric is the real deal.
We hosted our community event last night. Oh, I didn't mention that Eric is here as well. He's still in prison, but has been released to the CCSO for this week. It's powerful to see Renee and Eric stand together on stage. Eric wears his jail jumpsuit and is in handcuffs and ankle restraints. The visual is enough to shock you to listen. Then, the story unfolds. There was a group of about 100 here. Not bad, but afterward, I couldn't get out of my head that more in our area need to hear this. The CCSO had been looking for a venue to host another community event on Wednesday night (tonight) but had come up empty. At that point, I asked if they wanted to come back.
Renee and Eric were excited about being able to share again. I know that most of the 100 will be here again, but hopefully, being Wednesday and a "regular church night" for us, even more will be here.
We've hit Facebook and Twitter and the word is out. This is a unique opportunity. It's more than a M.A.D.D. message about drunk driving. Those messages are needed and vital, yet this one goes deeper.
It will be to your advantage to attend tonight if possible. Here are the details:
DUI Awareness & Forgiveness Event
First Baptist Church of Orange Park
1140 Kingsley Avenue
Orange Park, FL 32073
6pm - 7:15pm