Living

Finding a peace

Ruth and Jan Senneker hold a painting of their children who were lost in a 1977 auto accident. Their faith has sustained them through the years and knowing their children are now home.
Ruth and Jan Senneker hold a painting of their children who were lost in a 1977 auto accident. Their faith has sustained them through the years and knowing their children are now home.

On a dark roadside more than 30 years ago, the Rev. Jan Senneker received the life-shattering news that every parent hopes to never hear.

Danny and Judy, his two teenage children, were walking along a road near the family's home that Friday night. There'd been an accident, sirens.

Senneker hurried out to learn what was going on.

Danny, at 15, was tall, blonde, handsome and shy. He built skateboards and wanted to be a mechanic. Fourteen-year-old Judy, born in Australia, home to the kangaroo, was called Roo. She was a model student, who aspired to be a missionary in the land of her birth.

Danny and Judy invited friends home the night of Feb. 20, 1977, after a youth meeting at the church where Senneker was a pastor in Melbourne Beach, Fla.

Danny, Judy and a friend, Julie, walked another friend to a home nearby. They were walking back to the Senneker home, in single file beside the highway.

In a moment, the family changed forever.

'It's your children'

A speeding driver who had left a football game earlier that night passed two cars in a no-passing zone. The car swerved off the road and hit Danny first, then Judy and Julie.

"Ten seconds and they would have been home," recalls Senneker, now 70. "Ten seconds and they'd have been safe. But 10 seconds can be a long time."

A neighbor who was a police detective and served as an elder in Senneker's church arrived and found out what had happened. It was a bad scene. He warned Senneker away. "Don't go there," he told Senneker. "It's your children."

Danny and Judy were killed.

Julie was hurt, but she survived.

Senneker and his wife, Ruth, now retired in Rock Hill, were forever changed by their loss. But they came to see it as a way to help others blinded by similar tragedies.

Tonight, Senneker will share his experiences and offer words of comfort during a 7 p.m. candlelight vigil for families who want to remember their children who have died.

The vigil, at RMC Ministries on Eden Terrace in Rock Hill, will be part of an international band of light created by families around the globe who want to remember their lost children. It is sponsored by a global support group called Compassionate Friends, which helps grieving parents cope after the death of a child.

Patricia Loder, executive director of the Illinois-based Compassionate Friends, said it's tough for parents who have lost a child to get through the family-centered holidays.

"It becomes very poignant to you that your child is missing from your life," said Loder, who lives in Michigan. She and her husband lost their two children Stephanie, 8, and Stephen, 5, in a 1991 car accident.

The vigil began 11 years ago as a small event organized by an Internet parent chat group; it has grown to a worldwide observance held at 7 p.m. on the second Sunday of each December in time zones around the globe. "It has taken off by leaps and bounds," Loder said.

Dale Dove, a member and leader of RMC Ministries, said the church decided to sponsor the observance after two of its families lost children this year. Three more have lost children over the past several years, he said.

"It's just kind of difficult when everybody else seems to go on and you're facing this thing and it's a very difficult thing," he said. "We thought this would be a loving, compassionate show of support."

'God gave me peace'

After Senneker learned about the death of his children, he turned back toward home, overwhelmed by loss. "I was like, 'Oh, God, my children, my children.'"

But something happened.

"It was like a voice said to me, 'Jan Senneker, what have you been preaching all these years?'" he recalled. "'If you come to me in prayer and you make your need known with thanksgiving, I will give you peace.'"

Senneker prayed. "I said, 'Thank you, God, for my children, and I thank you that you're with us.' And God gave me peace. I don't think I've ever experienced that kind of peace, except for that night."

Senneker went back home to tell Ruth that Danny and Judy were gone. She was sitting on the couch, praying that the children were OK.

Ruth recalled what transpired between them: "He came back and said, 'Honey, if what I saw was true, they're gone.' And that's when the Lord said to me, 'It's OK, they're OK, I've got them.' It was such a peace."

The Sennekers prayed together. They cried and grieved, too. But they said the peace they felt together gave them the ability to face the tragedy and go on.

"It's not that the tears aren't there," Senneker explained. "God knows that we are human. But there's something about God's peace that makes you calm in a time of great difficulty . . . Without it, I would have been like, just put me in the grave with them."

Ruth remembers the painful first question she asked Jan.

"Did they hurt?" she wanted to know. "Did they suffer?"

No, he told her, Danny and Judy had died instantly.

Senneker said he knew his children were with the Lord because of the choice they had made. Danny and Judy had told him they wanted to dedicate their lives to the Lord. The decision had been theirs.

After the accident, a local newspaper called the Senneker home. Senneker wanted to speak with the reporter. The article that appeared later, he said, headlined his sentiment: "The Lord knows best."

'You'd forget he was gone'

Ruth, now 69, had to make a painful adjustment in the weeks and months that followed. She had stayed home to raise the couple's four children -- including their two younger girls, Linda, then almost 5, and Valerie, almost 2. So she felt an acute absence.

She'd go to the grocery store and walk past the meat counter, eyeing the pork chops. "You'd just say, 'Oh, pork chops, Danny loves pork chops, let's make pork chops.' You'd forget that he was gone," she said.

"Many times, at the beginning, we had to walk out of the store, because I didn't want to shop," Ruth said. "It hurt so much, it just brought them back."

A couple of weeks after the children died, Senneker told Ruth that he was almost out of clean socks. Ruth checked the laundry and realized what she'd done.

His dirty socks were piled up near the washing machine, but Ruth had been waiting to wash them. "I was waiting for some more dark clothes to come through," she said. "I was waiting for Danny and Judy's jeans."

Churches in their area used Danny's and Judy's deaths to call teens and adults alike to dedicate or rededicate their lives to the Lord, "because they didn't know the hour the Lord would take them," Ruth said.

Many people turned their lives over to the Lord in those services, she said. And the Sennekers received hundreds of cards and letters.

"This really assured us that the Lord was in it," Ruth said. And Senneker wondered aloud about the impact of Danny and Judy: "Maybe they led more to Christ in their death that I ever will in my life."

Ruth said she and Jan kept the memory of Danny and Judy alive for their two younger daughters, now grown and living in Fort Mill.

Little Valerie would pray for her two older siblings to return: "Fix Danny, Judy, come home," she would pray. But Ruth said that Linda had accepted it. "She'd say, 'Valerie, they can't come back, they're with Jesus'."

'Thinking about the life'

In the three decades since then, the Sennekers have reached out to other families who have suffered similar losses, sharing how they were able to cope.

Senneker, the former pastor of Neelys Creek and Tirzah ARP churches, both in York County, said the tragedy changed his ministry, making him more compassionate and able to relate to others' grief.

"The whole experience can be a blessing in your life, in the sense that you can help other people," Senneker said. "Some of the most difficult experiences in life can become some the most fruitful."

It was a dramatic transformation for a man who had once been terrified of death. Senneker, born in Holland in 1937, had grown up a witness to the bombing raids and aerial dogfights of World War II.

In his youth, he had been afraid to attend a funeral or even to go to a funeral home. But after he attended Bible college in Michigan in his 20s, he learned that he need not fear death, "because we have Easter, and Christ is the Resurrection and life."

After he arrived at Neelys Creek ARP in 1981, three young people were killed within a few years. "I believe God used us to help in those situations," he said.

Loder, with Compassionate Friends, said bereaved parents need to make the transition from focusing on their child's death to focusing on the child's life.

That's where Compassionate Friends helps. "It takes a while to make that transition, where you're not always thinking about the death, you're thinking about the life," she said.

Ruth said families who lose children need to talk about their children who have died, just as other parents want to talk about their children who are living.

"I still miss them, of course, but we're very happy that the Lord is baby-sitting for us," said Ruth, lighting up with laughter. "I'm really glad the Bible says I can recognize them when I see them. We can look forward to that."

What: Remembering our Children, Reshaping our Hearts candlelight vigil, part of The Compassionate Friends event for families of children who have died.

When: 7 p.m. today

Where: RMC Ministries, 1820 Eden Terrace, Rock Hill.

Details: The Rev. Jan Senneker will speak, candles will be lighted to remember each child and the event will be followed by refreshments and fellowship.

Also: Families can write words that represent their child on a special memorial ornament and hang it on a Christmas tree at the church.

History: The candle lighting started in the United States in 1997 as a small Internet observance and has spread around the globe. It is now held annually on the second Sunday in December. A memorial message board is available at the group's Web site, www.compassionatefriends.org.

What: Remembering our Children, Reshaping our Hearts candlelight vigil, part of The Compassionate Friends event for families of children who have died.

When: 7 tonight.

Where: RMC Ministries, 1820 Eden Terrace, Rock Hill.

Details: The Rev. Jan Senneker will speak, candles will be lighted to remember each child and the event will be followed by refreshments and fellowship.

Also: Families can write words that represent their child on a special memorial ornament and hang it on a Christmas tree at the church.

History: The candle lighting started in the United States in 1997 as a small Internet observance and has spread around the globe. It is now held annually on the second Sunday in December. A memorial message board is available at the group's Web site, www.compassionatefriends.org.

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