Bystanders

IMG_2790

By Mark Vermilion

I wrote this article one year ago. I’ve seldom had as much of a response to anything I’ve written before or since. A year later, I’m posting it again because my life is still different because of this experience.

Defining moments don’t happen very often in our lives. But I experienced one this week when I was in Loveland, Colorado, on business.

After a long afternoon of meetings, I stopped at a fast-food restaurant on the way out of town. I ordered at the counter and then stepped into the restroom while I waited for my food to be prepared. When I returned from the restroom, I was surprised to find every customer and employee standing at a wall of windows on one side of the restaurant, looking out into a busy street.

Several women were gasping and screaming in response to something that was happening outside the restaurant.

“Oh, Jesus! Oh, Jesus! Oh Jesus!” an older woman kept repeating in a hushed, desperate voice.

A gray-haired man grabbed a cell phone out of his pocket and called 9-1-1.

As I hurried closer to the window, I heard another man relaying what he had just seen to the manager of the restaurant.

“An old van was heading the wrong way up the one-way street,” he said. “The driver saw the oncoming traffic and swerved to get out of the way. She hit a curb and rolled the van. It threw the her and the passenger clear through the window.”

He then pointed toward the wreckage and added, “The girl is laying out there in the street. I think she’s dead.”

My adrenaline immediately kicked in.

I ran out the door and saw a young man staggering from out of the wreckage and toward the oncoming traffic that had slowed to a halt. He had gashes on his head and face, and blood was flowing profusely from a cut in his head. A middle-aged woman and I grabbed him by the arms and walked him to a grassy area beside the street. She continued to attend to him as I turned toward the wrecked minivan.

That’s when I saw a girl’s limp body lying facedown on the street between the curb and the front tire on the driver’s side of the demolished van.

I quickly surveyed the street around me before I crossed into the wreckage. Cars were stopped and backed up as far as I could see. Dozens of bystanders had gathered about fifty feet away from the wreckage in every direction.

I quickly realized that I was one of only two people who had rushed on to the scene to help.

The van was still running and sounded a high-pitched, grinding squeal that added to the chaos and terror of the moment. Sparks flew from the exposed engine, and it sounded like the van was going to explode. I ran to the driver-side door, reached over the girl’s body into the broken side window, and turned off the ignition.

Satisfied that the van wasn’t going to ignite, I knelt down by the girl. Her right arm was pulled behind her and was lying limp on her back—obviously torn from its socket. All of her fingers on that hand were severed in a clean line at the knuckles, and her upper body was convulsing.

Her sweat pants were ripped down from her waste, and her buttocks were exposed.

I couldn’t see her face, but the girl looked like she was in her twenties.

Her whole body suddenly began to shake from shock and exposure to the crisp autumn air. A bystander offered his jacket, and I covered the exposed parts of her body.

A wretched odor of antifreeze, electrical burning, and alcohol invaded my nostrils, and I nearly vomited.

Now, my body began to shake. My breathing began to go fast and shallow.

“Oh God!” I whispered. “What do I do?”

Another woman knelt down with me, and we agreed that we shouldn’t move the girl. (I did learn something in my college first-aid class.) We couldn’t help anymore physically, so for the next few minutes, I hunched over the girl, put my hand gently on her head, and spoke to her in a slow, calming voice.

I wondered if these were going to be the last few moments of her life.

“I’m here with you,” I began. “You’re not alone. I love you, and God loves you, and you are not alone. Medical professionals will be here soon to take care of you, and you’ll have the help you need. I’m going to pray over you now because God is right here with us, and he wants to take you in his arms. You’re not alone.”

I prayed over the girl so she could hear me and then stood up for a moment. A woman came up from behind me and began to comfort her as well while I silently continued to pray. Within a few moments, a police officer arrived and asked us to step aside.

I found a grassy place under a nearby tree and fell to the ground. I sobbed uncontrollably for the next five minutes or so. Not so much because I had experienced something traumatic, but because my heart broke for this dear, young girl who was experiencing something terrifying and horrific.

For a moment, I tried to stop the crying because people were watching me. And then I just let the tears and sobs come.

An ambulance pulled up and EMT personnel quickly came to the girl’s aid. After assessing her condition, they slowly turned over her body to place it on a flat, wooden board. My head instinctively turned away as I got a glimpse of her bloody, lacerated face.

More sobbing.

The ambulance drove off, and I continued to pray for her. I didn’t know what else to do. I texted other friends to pray for her, too. I called my wife, Katrina, to share with her what had happened.

And more sobbing.

That night and the next morning, I called local hospitals to try to find out if the girl had survived, but they all cited HIPAA laws and refused to give me any information.

The next day, Katrina found an online article about the wreck in the Loveland newspaper. We found out that the girl’s name was Kelly. She was just 27 years old.

And she was listed in critical condition.

Two stories
Later that night, after the adrenaline rush subsided, I replayed in my mind every moment of what had happened. At that point, I didn’t know Kelly was still alive.

God began to speak to me.

He reminded me of how many years I’ve been a bystander when it comes to the pain of others. Like the bystanders at Kelly’s accident scene, I would watch others’ pain from a safe distance so I didn’t have to be uncomfortable or experience the horror that they were experiencing.

It’s not that I’d been heartless. Not at all. I’d prayed with great earnestness at times and had given quite a bit of money to aid people near and far who were suffering.

But I had left the front-line work to the ministry “professionals,” those who are “called” to get directly involved in loving, meeting physical needs, and bringing spiritual hope to those who are suffering.

That was not a spiritual gift I wanted. But that night God made it clear to me that He’s called us all to (in some way) get into the wreckage of other people’s lives and help them. But most of us are like voyeurs watching from the outside…just like the bystanders at the accident scene.

From a distance, the accident entertained them—kinda like people watching a horror movie. But up close, the view I got was raw. It was brutal. It was painful. It was heart-breaking.

It was personal.

As I lied awake that night, Kelly’s accident scene became a picture to me of how the church deals with the pain and suffering of oppressed and marginalized people around the corner and around the world.

We stand “fifty feet away” and “watch” when we learn about the devastation of: AIDS in Africa, parasite-filled drinking water in Third-World countries, domestic violence and drug addiction in our own communities, orphaned children, and sex trafficking all over the world.

For every person who got involved at Kelly’s accident scene there were dozens who were afraid to get too close. When I asked a leathery old Coloradan if he had a blanket in his truck to cover up the crash victims, he replied, “Are you a trained professional?”

“No!” I shot back, “But there aren’t any ‘trained professionals’ here so I’ll have to do!”

I’ll never forget his reply: “Oh, what the hell, I’ll help you! None of these other damn people are gonna do anything!”

He recognized both of the tragedies present at that moment. The first had to do with the accident itself. The second was that only a few people had ventured into the wreckage to help.

My leathery Coloradan friend jumped into action. He crawled through the demolished minivan to see if there was a baby inside.

Before climbing in, he pointed to a child seat lying in the road and exclaimed, “I hope to God there ain’t a baby trapped in this heap.”

The good news is that there wasn’t a baby involved in the wreck. The bad news is that Kelly didn’t survive it. Two days later, Katrina found her obituary in the Loveland newspaper.

More sobbing.

A Year Later
For the past year, I’ve been telling people about Kelly and how God used her death to impact my life.

Here’s what God moved from my head to my heart that day: You don’t have to have a special calling to serve those who are suffering. You don’t have to have any special talents. You just have to be willing.

If we call ourselves followers of Jesus then we should follow Him wherever He goes.

And He goes where people are suffering.

Remember how He touched a leper? Remember how He healed the sick? Remember how He spoke to demons and cast them out of people? Remember how He got involved in the lives of prostitutes and adulterers? Remember how He confronted the stench of death and overcame it?

He wasn’t a bystander who just observed people’s pain. He got involved in their pain. And He often delivered them from it.

The sad reality is that most of us aren’t involved. Like the bystanders at the accident scene in Loveland a year ago, there a fifty bystanders for every two or three people get involved. That’s why a few friends and I started the Live Love Movement. Our purpose is to invite ordinary people to get off the sidelines and get involved in the wreckage of people’s lives.

If you stay on the sidelines, people’s pain will be distant to you. Their suffering will never be real to you. Why? Because at a distance, you can’t inhale the sickening air around them, see the skin ripped off their face, hear their desperate gasps for air, or caress their bleeding scalp.

In short, the suffering of others is only real when we get up close and do what we can, where we can, and how we can.

When suffering is real to you, it breaks your heart. And when your heart is broken, you can’t stay away from those who hurt any longer. You’re compelled to get into the wreckage of their lives and do what you can—even if you can’t do any more than comfort and pray.

Sometimes, the only thing you can say to a hurting person is, “You’re not alone. I love you, and God loves you, and you are not alone. I’m going to pray over you now because God is right here with us, and He wants to take you in his arms. You’re not alone.”

I’m no longer sitting on the sideline. Are you?