I originally wrote this ten years ago. Today is the 27th anniversary of Erin’s passing, and, true to form, I have had texts from both her sisters today. Not about the anniversary, mind you. Just funny stuff we (me, Joy, Emily, Lori, and John) send one another all the time. In honor of them and in memory of Erin, I hope you’ll take the time to read this.
Certain days change your life. And other days help you understand the change.
February 9th, 1996 was a day that changed both me and Joy.
In the Spring of 1996 I was a junior at Hardin-Simmons University and was serving as University Intern at Pioneer Drive Baptist Church—a position I had held for just over a year. I ministered to college students as one of their peers. It was my first official church position, and I loved it. Joy was a sophomore at Hardin-Simmons. She attended Pioneer Drive, and we were in the same circle of friends at school, but she and I were not yet dating. (That wouldn't happen for some time.)
Joy was suitemates in her dorm with a vivacious girl named Erin. Erin was enthusiastic, funny, musical, and a campus leader. She was a member of Student Congress, Student Foundation, a Greek club, and, oddly enough, the Baptist Student Ministry puppet team. Joy and Erin, along with several other girls from their corner of the Ferguson dorm spent almost all of their waking hours together. At a small school like Hardin-Simmons, students who live on campus form a tight community, so a girl like Erin was well-known.
Throughout that year Joy and Erin and several other friends that were part of the University Ministry at Pioneer Drive became very close. I led a Wednesday night Bible study most weeks, where 30 or so students would gather to sing and study Scripture. I was a ministry novice, and I most likely butchered the New Testament from time to time, but I still look back on those Wednesday nights with great fondness. We would laugh and discuss God and ponder the lives we each had ahead. And, through it all, I was attempting to learn something about pastoring.
On the night of February 9th, tragedy struck.
Erin and two other students (Kelli Marshall and Jason Hale) were traveling to sing at a church in Houston when their car collided head-on with a semi truck. All three were killed.
I don't remember where Joy was that night, but I will never forget where I was. I was standing, half-dazed on the lawn of Ferguson dormitory, struggling to be a pastor. I knew I was supposed to say something, to be pastoral to my peers. Instead, I simply sobbed, hugging my friends tightly and praying with as many as I could.
As the funeral approached, Erin's parents opened up their home to grieving college students making the trek to Killeen for the service. We visited on floors and couches, sharing stories of Erin, groping our way through the grieving process.
And, somewhere during that time in Killeen, I met Erin's younger twin sisters, Lori and Emily.
Lori and Emily were fourteen years old at the time. They were, like Erin, full of life and hilarious. I liked them immediately.
During the funeral, I saw Erin's parents, along with Lori and Emily, crying and hugging Joy. Joy was crying, too. They hugged her like she was a family member.
Joy and I dated through 1998 and were engaged on Labor Day. Throughout that year, I noticed that Joy regularly took time to communicate with Lori and Emily. She would call them, visit them, and send them cards. She made it a point to reach out to them on February 9th. She kept pictures of them in their band uniforms in her room.
Slowly I began to understand. Joy had decided to make the girls part of her life. Since Erin was gone, she had decided to become their big sister.
Which meant that I was to be their brother-in-law.
I don't know that we ever fully discussed what us adopting the girls would look like; it was simply an assumed part of our relationship. The girls were simply part of the package.
And so they became part of our lives.
They were in our wedding. We were their Disciple Now leaders. We went to their high school graduation. We visited them a couple of times at college (yes, they went to Hardin-Simmons, as well). We sent some flowers on one February 9th. We met them for pie in Edom, Texas. We hosted them in our house. We screened boyfriends. Joy went to visit them at their homes. We hosted them again. I crashed at their house in Tyler for a church planting conference. And we hosted them again. And again. And again.
In short, we treated them like they were our little sisters.
Because they were. Or rather, they are.
Lori and Emily now live in Tyler. Lori is a science teacher and is married to an incredible man (who has become a close friend), John. Emily is a music teacher, trained as a librarian, and has the ability to make me laugh harder than almost any person alive.
We love them.
Today we drove back from Tyler, having seen the girls again. Of course, they're not girls any longer. But that's what we call them.
Today was a beautiful and special day for us, because today John and Lori adopted their daughter, Maddie. Maddie was brought to them through the foster care system when she was four months old. And for the last fourteen months they have loved her and taken care of her and prayed for her. And we have prayed that the Lord would make it possible that they might be able to adopt her.
Foster care adoptions are rarely simple, and Maddie's was no exception. There were dramatic moments, and there were times when I would look at Joy and say, "I have no idea what will happen if they don't get to adopt her."
But, thankfully, that didn't happen.
Instead, today we celebrated. JB put on her black dress and I put on my bow tie and we joined the family at the Smith County Courthouse. The attorneys cried with cracking voices and I sobbed as I videoed the judge declaring that Maddie's name had officially been changed. And then we went to their house and enjoyed a party that Aunt Emmy (Maddie's name for Emily) had organized with cupcakes and fruit dip and ice cream punch and Stanley's Famous BBQ. The entire family doted over Maddie as she ran around in her dress and basked in the center of attention.
Somewhere around 11:30, John asked me and his dad, John, Sr., to go pick up the BBQ. As we sat at Stanley's Famous waiting on our order, he said, "Steve, I have a hard time keeping all of John's friends straight. How do you know John and Lori? Did you work at Pine Cove?"
My head swam for a moment. I didn't really know how to answer that question. So I gave him the full story, something similar to what you read above.
John nodded and listened. After I finished, he paused. Then he said, "You know, we saw an adoption today. But adoption comes in all shapes and sizes. You and your wife saw that those girls needed to be loved. So you loved them. That's the sort of love that God has. He sees us, in our need, and He loves us. No questions asked. You adopted those girls."
I held my styrofoam cup of iced tea in both hands and looked into it. He was right. I had certainly never thought of it like that before, but, I guess he was right.
We brought them into our family.
This afternoon, as we prepared to say our goodbyes, some things started to crystallize in my mind. Our lives were changed on February 9, 1996. But I understood them today, on September 17, 2013. Today I saw that we adopted two girls—who are now two amazing women—who are now mother and aunt to a newly adopted girl.
Many years we chose to love them.
And now? Now they are choosing to love the most precious little girl in Tyler.
Christianity teaches that the Lord adopts us through the forgiveness of Jesus. He has chosen us and transformed us. We are no longer enemies of God, but, if we receive His grace, we are His sons and daughters. We are adopted.
Will we allow our adoption to transform us? Will we use it to allow us to love others?
I want my adoption to go full-circle over and over.
I want the love of Jesus to overflow onto everyone else in my path.
When you are in Christ, your adoption leaks onto others, allowing you to adopt them in love and grace and to model the gospel of grace that has been given.
At Aunt Emmy's party, John and Lori set out a Bible with pens. They asked those present to underline a verse and to sign their name next to it.
I chose Ephesians 1:5:
"He predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will."
Don't waste your adoption.
Photo: Steve and Joy Bezner with Emily (between me and Joy) and Lori (on the right) at the girls’ high school graduation.