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Ministering after a tragedy

21 June 2013

Mark Ireland describes how his church faced the murder of Georgia Williams

Remembered: a card that was distributed before Georgia Williams's funeral

Remembered: a card that was distributed before Georgia Williams's funeral

"THERE'S a crowd of teenagers and several camera crews in the churchyard - I thought you ought to know."

The anonymous call to the parish office was taken by our youth minister, Kate Hatton, who quickly realised that these were the friends of Georgia Williams, the 17-year-old sixth-former from the local college who had been missing for several days. Her friends, desperate to do something, had been leafleting the town centre and appealing for help to find her, and then decided to gather in a far corner of the churchyard for a two-minute silent vigil.

Realising that the church needed to offer something more than a corner of its churchyard, Kate opened the building, lit some candles, put on some music, and found a blank page in a book, which she put on a table outside the front door - headed simply "Messages and prayers for Georgia's family". Gradually, some of the teenagers began to write in the book, and drift in and out of church in twos and threes. A few of us loitered about, willing to listen and talk, but not wanting to frighten anyone away. Several people spoke to us, while others seemed to value the space.

While I was on the phone to our prayer chain, one of Georgia's friends put his head round the vestry door, and asked if he could borrow some Blu-tack to put up a cardboard sign in the churchyard. It was such a small request, but probably took a great deal of courage from a group of teenagers with little or no contact with church, apart from using the churchyard to eat their sandwiches in the lunch hour. I asked him whether they would like to hold a vigil inside the church rather than outside, and suggested that we could light some candles and have a simple prayer.

We did not know whether they would take up our offer, but clambered into the attic to find some nightlights left over from the Christmas carol service, just in case. In the event, we were amazed by the response, as about 40 of Georgia's friends came into church just before 3 p.m., and joined a good number of our congregation who had also gathered to pray.

It seemed important to let the young people take a lead; so I invited one of them to say a few words, and they asked whether one of them could sing a song that he had written for Georgia. Offering the microphone to some very emotional "not-yet-Christians" (with no chance to preview what they would say) was a risk, and they seemed surprised and grateful to be taken seriously.

After their vigil, I took a photo on my phone and posted it on the church's Facebook page, with a prayer that we had written for Georgia. It was the work of only a few minutes, but when I logged on the following morning, I found that the prayer and photo had gone viral on the internet, and reached more than 42,000 people - on a page that, until then, had had only 197 followers. The prayer read:

May the light of the Lord shine and scatter this darkness as we lift Georgia to you, O Lord. O Lord, you are all-knowing, you are all-seeing. May she know your peace wherever she is. May she be restored to her friends and family. And may this dark cloud over this town be lifted. We pray that your presence will bring refreshment in the midst of our despair. May we receive good news of Georgia. In Jesus' name. Amen.

That evening, the news broke that Georgia had been killed. We texted the leader of the young people, and invited them back into church the following morning for a two-minute silence and prayer. Inviting them to come back when all hope was gone seemed a big ask. Yet they all came, and, once more, we kept the church open for several hours for prayer and reflection.

By this time, the media interest was intense, and the prayer and silence at the opening of our Sunday-morning service the next day was carried by both television and radio. Another prayer written for that occasion was printed on a card free by a local printer, and has been widely used around the community in the days leading up to the funeral.

WRITING the address for that funeral was hard, knowing (not least from our Facebook page) that there were those who felt angry with a God they didn't really believe in - a god who would stand by and allow an innocent, lively teenage girl to be murdered.

I wanted to say that that was not a god I believed in, either. The God I believe in knows what it is to have his life brutally cut short at the hands of others; the God I believe in knows from the inside the anguish of a bereaved parent; the God I believe is not far from us, but, as the Holy Spirit, the Comforter, is here with us now, giving us strength to face each day. I also wanted to give a message of hope in the resurrection of Jesus, and hope for the future of our town.

There was only one chance to get it right - or to get it horribly wrong. So many people put their trust in you at that moment: the grieving family; the school and college, which closed early so that staff and students could attend the service; the wider community, who turned out in such numbers; the police, grieving for the daughter of one of their own officers, while conducting the murder investigation. That is when knowing that you are being prayed for really counts.

The day of the funeral, last Friday, was incredible. We opened the church doors an hour before the service, and, within ten minutes, the whole place was jammed. It was only when I came out at the end of the service, and saw the churchyard packed with the overflow of people who had listened on loudspeakers, that I realised that the service had been attended by more than 1000 people, and 10,000 more have since accessed the text of the sermon on Facebook.

But the moment of the service that will always stay with me was seeing Georgia's courageous father hold himself together, as he read out a poem posted on the internet by Georgia's friends. It ended:

Now all we have is memories,
And your picture in a frame.
Your memory is our keepsake,
With which we will never part.
God has you in his keeping,
But we all have you in our hearts.

The Revd Mark Ireland is the Vicar of All Saints', Wellington, Telford.

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