Leadership in Tragedy: Words of Compassion to a Grieving Community

June 5, 2024

Excerpt from Heartbreak and Hope: A Homecoming Story of the Houghton Six by Houghton University with Jack Connell ’83. Published by Wesleyan Publishing House, October 2024.

President Chamberlain then approached the pulpit for his address to the grieving community he led. What can you possibly say? How do you both acknowledge the unspeakable loss and simultaneously provide hope? How do you craft words so they have the compassion and elegance the situation requires? He must have labored over this message, perhaps in the early morning or late night hours, as he also grappled with the multiple demands placed upon him over the preceding five days. “The events of last Friday shocked and saddened us all,” he began. “The sudden snatching of six senior students from our community has produced tears, the pain of separation and prayers for the bereaved.” He expressed gratitude for the support expressed in the many cards and letters the College had received, admiration for the “strength and courage” of the parents, and appreciation for the community’s concern for the driver of the truck.

Dr. Chamberlain then gave brief words of tribute about each of the six students. These tributes became the College’s official statements about the six that would be used in a variety of contexts…

Chamberlain shared a couple personal anecdotes that illustrated the generosity and kindness of the six students, and noted that due to their humility, most had not even told their parents that they were members of the Homecoming Court. He then reflected on a chapel talk he had given to the student body just the week before: “I suggested four principles growing out of the life and experience of Joseph. They were these: maintain a concern for others; recognize God’s blessing even in adversity; remain tender; exhibit a spirit of forgiveness. These young people were living examples of these four principles. Their lives strengthened us and their memories will enrich us.”

Dr. Chamberlain then drew the congregation’s attention to two passages of Scripture from the New Testament. From the account in John’s gospel of Jesus weeping at the death of his friend Lazarus, Dr. Chamberlain pointed out two “fundamental truths:” the reality of eternal life and the assurance that Lazarus’ death “had been permitted by God to bring glory to God.” Consequently, Chamberlain said, “That is our confidence. God is in control and He will bring honor and glory to Himself. Christ is the resurrection and the life and because He lives, we too shall live.” Drawing a contrast with those who would suggest that life has no meaning, he said: “The purpose of life is to glorify God. History is not circular nor meaningless; it is linear. It proceeds from God and it is His desire that life lead us to Him.”

Drawing on Luke’s account of the two disheartened disciples travelling to Emmaus after the crucifixion, Chamberlain said: “Yes, for them Friday was a dark day, but Sunday was coming. We have had our dark Friday, but Sunday is coming. The separation we experienced on Friday is temporary; Sunday is coming.” His voice now breaking with emotion as he said the students’ names one more time, Dr. Chamberlain concluded his message: “And so to Mark, Beth, Alan, Joy, Bert and Cindy we do not say ‘good-bye.’ We say ‘till we meet again.’”

© Heartbreak and Hope:  A Homecoming Story of the Houghton Six by Houghton University with Jack Connell. Published by Wesleyan Publishing House, October 2024.