A Rock for Remembrance

Each student who went on Potter’s Clay in the spring of 1989 brought back two rocks from Mexico. Usually they return with memorabilia like trinkets from the village children or blankets from Ensenada. But in 1989 they bore rocks gathered in the hills outside Ensenada.

On the morning of March 27, 1989, Lisa Bebout, Patty Hallock, Megan Harter, Alan Voorman, and Garth Weedman piled into Alan’s car to travel to a nearby village. The students were part of a team doing construction work on a dilapidated house. As they traveled to the work site, an oncoming car suddenly jumped the divider and landed on Alan’s car. The two Potter’s Clay cars behind Alan screeched to a halt. Students piled out to rescue their friends as ambulances rushed to the scene. Soon afterwards, the injured students were on their way to local hospitals.

Lisa Debout Alan Voorman Garth Weedman

As the ambulances rushed into Ensenada, students who saw the accident headed back to camp to marshal prayer forces. The morning chapel service was still in progress as sophomore Amy Malmsten ran into camp and told Potter’s Clay co-leader Dave Harbeson about the accident. Dave told the group what little he knew at the time, and then he asked everyone to pray. After spending almost an hour in prayer, students went to their villages. During the course of the day, over 140 people went to the hospital to give blood. This was critical in saving Megan’s life as her initial need for blood was great.

Despite the tragedy, ministry in the villages continued. But the notion of Christian service took on a new meaning for students that day. As usual, they sang with the Mexican children, did construction work, or simply talked to local residents. But there seemed to be a greater sense of purpose and conviction. Being in the villages was also therapeutic for many students. Playing with children or putting a new roof on a church provided an outlet for pent-up and confused emotions. Focusing on ministry became crucial not because students wanted to forget, but because they wanted to do something, anything. The only thing they could do was pray and continue with the mission of Potter’s Clay.

Alan died that afternoon. Within hours, messengers had traveled to all the villages to relay the sad news. Students found themselves caught between powerful emotions – grief and the determination to complete the work of Potter’s Clay. While one student heard that his friend had just died, a child was pulling at his arm to come and play. The only thing he could do was spend some time in prayer and then play with the child.

The mood was somber in camp that night. Usually groups gather around campfires in the evening, telling stories of blundered translations and other humorous events of the day. But this evening was different. The prayers were awkward and confused. Many expressed confusion and fear. Instead of engaging in the usual light-hearted banter typical of Potter’s Clay evenings, small groups gathered and sang and prayed quietly.

The next morning, a Tuesday, teams went out as usual. The sense of the camp was that in spite of the tragedy, the purpose of the trip was to serve God and that work should go on. As teams arrived in the different villages that day, they were overwhelmed by the outpouring of love and support from the Mexican people. Students may have been far away from their families in this difficult time, but they were at home with their families in Mexico.

The teams reconvened in the afternoon for an extended chapel. Westmont chaplain Bart Tarman, Dean of Students Jon Hess, President Winter, and the American doctors who had been in the hospitals with the victims spoke to the students. Bart opened the chapel with the news that Garth died during the night, and Lisa was not expected to live much longer. She died the next morning. Patty and Megan had been transported to a hospital in San Diego and were in stable condition.

Many students faced confusing and unfamiliar feelings because of the tragedy. Some were angry at God, and Bart spoke to that. “It’s not wrong to be angry with God. But you need to take that anger to Him.”

ChapelGordon Aeschliman ’78, one of the co-founders of Potter’s Clay, spoke in chapel on Wednesday morning. He talked of the ugliness of death, but reminded students that God gives ultimate victory over death. Gordon concluded with an unusual request. He asked each student to find three rocks. Two could be any size and one should be small enough to hold in one’s palm. Students slowly and quietly ventured into the nearby hills and down to the riverbed. They found rocks of all size. Some brought rocks so big that it took a few people to carry them. But the size didn’t matter. Gordon asked students to use one of those rocks to build a memorial to Alan, Garth, and Lisa at the campsite.

Westmont held a memorial service on campus one week after the accident. Friends of the victims spoke and remembered lost roommates and buddies. The Potter’s Clay music team led the congregation in song. A contingent of clergymen, their families, and a physician who had worked with Potter’s Clay drove through the night from Mexico to be at the memorial service. “We are here to share with you our love and our pain and hurt,” said Rev. Robert Ninos through a translator. When the service came to a close, families met with students who knew their children best.

Afterwards, students used one of the two rocks they had brought back from Mexico to build a memorial at Westmont. Other members of the Westmont community gathered rocks from the campus to add to the memorial. The pile of rocks grew larger as people silently stepped up and placed their rock on the pile. And then someone started singing “Amazing Grace.” Others joined in. For the next 45 minutes, the Westmont campus resounded with hundreds of voices singing praise songs.

The third rock signifies commitment. The first two rocks have become part of permanent monuments to three lost friends as well as to God’s faithfulness. But students kept the third rock to carry with them wherever they go. Some keep it in their car, their purse, or their dresser. It reminds them of the presence and faithfulness of God and of a week in Ensenada that spring that radically changed their lives.