The students from Central Church of Christ in Streator, Illinois didn’t feel like celebrating God’s love and they didn’t want to be around others who did. Their hearts were hardened, and their walls were up after their close friend, Matthew Olson, took his life on Easter – just two months prior to the conference. It couldn’t have been worse timing for the event because that exact week was when Matthew would have celebrated his 18th birthday. Even though the group had honored his memory with multiple suicide awareness and mental health events in their community, there was still little healing going on in their hearts.
“It’s been a rough year and probably one of the most difficult things we’ve had to deal with in my 11 years of ministry,” said Paul Webster, family minister for the church. “The group has been crushed with the loss and ever since that moment we as leaders have recognized that this is what we’re here for. To know of the ways that God moves and breaks down barriers at CIY MOVE was the main reason why we pushed our students to go.”
Adult sponsor Ellie Eccleston said the week was a roller-coaster of emotion – starting with frustration and deep heartache.
“It wasn’t like in years past when the students were hyped to attend MOVE,” Eccleston said. “It was hard to watch the kids just sit there in small group and not respond. They didn't sing during worship – some fell asleep – it was so discouraging. Both myself and the other sponsor there that week continued to pray, and we asked Him to break through to the students and make Himself known.”
On the third night of MOVE – which would have been Matthew’s birthday – Ellie said something miraculous happened when the speaker dove deep into the story of Elijah and how the Lord met him in his sadness.
“The students heard the message that ‘the place Elijah found despair and sadness was the place that God never told him to go to,’ and it touched their hearts,” Ellie said. “In small group that night, they talked about how no matter when we run from God, He will always find us. They found so much hope in that. They heard the message of ‘being sent' and what it looks like to go and use our stories to make disciples. I can tell that healing is beginning even though they still have questions. What’s encouraging is the way they lean on each other and are plugged into church. As leaders, we’ve learned that at times when it seems no fruit is growing, we are to be faithful and continue because the Lord is at work and He is always good.”
To this day, Webster said he tries to meet with the students and serve them wherever they are in their grief – it sometimes looks like visiting Matt’s grave, talking one-on-one or just sitting quietly together as a group.
“While we as leaders and influencers know that we’re called to be here and He has prepared us for this, so much of our focus is on community and being present for the kids,” he said. “Sponsors like Ellie have stepped up in amazing ways to be there for the kids who haven’t developed coping skills, but the thing is grief hits us all differently – at different times, even. As a friend and mentor, the best thing you can do is recognize their hurt when it happens and let them know we’re going to work through it together. God teaches us that growth doesn’t happen when you’re comfortable, and it’s not always easy, but He holds it all in His hands and He is what we put our trust and faith on. In this year of change and growth, I’m grateful for my family and amazing moments when we’ve seen God move – just like what happened at CIY MOVE.”