New Zion absorbs the loss of 5 in crash of church van

By Karen L. Willoughby, Managing Editor

OAK GROVE – The five people who died June 22 as a result of a church van crash all made professions of faith within the last 18 months.

The 3,000 close-knit people who live in and around Oak Grove are broken with grief, said Greg Dunn, pastor of New Zion Baptist Church.

Providentially, he added, a year ago the 50 or more churches of several denominations in West Carroll Parish began planning for an area-wide crusade that is set to begin July 10.

A 4-year-old killed in the one-vehicle crash was born on July 10.

“We believe what Satan meant for harm, God will use for good,” Dunn said. “We are going to honor their lives by many souls coming to the Lord.”

Investigation continues into the cause of the crash, which took place in daylight about five miles from New Zion Baptist, as the 15-passenger white church van took folks home from Wednesday night church.

Killed were Portia Thornton and her two daughters: Katelyn, 19, and Brittany, 12, as well as Emma Adams, 4, who was visiting the church, and driver Joey McKan. Six others were injured, some critically.

“I will never forget that night, standing in the hallway while surrounded by church members, still talking about the service and laughing and fellowshipping like we always do, and then came the call that would forever change our lives,” Pastor Dunn said.


A frantic – yet prayer-filled – dash to the accident site came next.

“We could have never been prepared for what we saw and heard when we arrived,” Dunn said. “I have never felt so helpless, wishing that this was not happening, and yet it was.”

The next few days were filled with hospital visits, funerals and road trips between Shreveport and Jackson, Miss., “to pick up the broken pieces and try to do all we could to minister to these precious families,” the pastor said. “I lay in my bed Saturday night, knowing that my church family was expecting a Word from the Lord.

“Jesus reminded me of the storm the disciples faced in Matthew 8, when they were all in the boat and the wind and the waves began to shake their faith,” the pastor continued. “We can’t choose the storms …. We are guaranteed to have storms. … I cried out, ‘Lord, where are you in our storm? Where are you in the midst of this tragedy?’”

God told Dunn He was in all the people who gathered because of the crash, the pastor said: EMT personnel, hospital staff, volunteers and more; families, churches and communities “from all over who have come together for one purpose: to help the hurting. … He’s the one holding the hand of the dying. … He’s a piano player, a deacon, a body of Christ who rallies around a scared, young preacher who wants to quit and run the other way.”

In all, Dunn wrote down 21 places God was, all at the same time, in the midst of the storm.

As he read the “Where is God?” list Sunday morning, he could see comfort come to settle atop the congregation’s raw wounds, he said.

“The Lord is doing His work here,” the pastor said, backing off from the present tragedy to view the big picture of God’s activity. New Zion, planted in 1934 – a year into the Great Depression – reported 60 professions of faith and 31 baptisms in 2010, and probably that many already in 2011.

“We’re a very mission-minded church and serious about being real,” Dunn said. “We know God has given evangelists as a gift to the local church, so we use them.” Twice a year the church gathers for revival meetings.

“Everybody on this van were folks saved and discipled in the last 18 months, every last one of them,” the pastor said.  That includes the five who died. One was a 16-year-old girl who made a profession of faith six months ago as a result of the van ministry.

“We send 20 to 25 missionaries out of our church each year to do missions, and we believe missions starts at home,” Dunn said. “We seek through our Brotherhood and the women’s group to minister any way we can – cutting down trees, providing school supplies, groceries – any avenue we can to get the Gospel to people – not just in word but in action.

“Our director of missions [Jay Morgan] was out of town when this happened,” the pastor said; his mind not straying for long from the loss his congregation is enduring. “He was doing ministry with Kingdom Builders and drove all night to be at the hospital with the families and me.

“It was overwhelming, the first few hours,” Dunn continued a week after the crash. “The people have moved from ‘overwhelm’ to very evidently trusting God in it. They’re still hurting, still in need, but trusting God.”

His immediate goal is “to be there and try to be strong for them and with them,” Dunn said. “The one thing we know is we can cling to God’s Word and God’s presence. The message God gave us Sunday morning was about the storms of life and how we can’t choose whether or not we go through them, but we can choose how we handle it.”

The community crusade set several months ago for July 10-15 is to take place at 11 a.m. Sunday and 7 p.m. each night in the Thomas Jason Lingo Center in Oak Grove, with Evangelist Bill Britt as guest speaker, and the Mackey Willis family leading in worship.

Depending on what God does with hearts already broken, the crusade could be extended, said Dunn, who is chairman of the Crusade steering committee.

“One thing God has given us is that this [crusade] is going to be big,” Dunn said. “[Britt] has a gift to challenge Christians to be real and not lukewarm. … We felt like this is who God wanted to be part of this crusade.

“This is something no one is going to want to miss,” the pastor continued. “You’re not going to want to just read about it in the Baptist Message. … You’re going to want to see for yourself what God does.”