WACO—The collision on U.S. Route 77 happened so quickly, few initially understood its impact. But that car wreck 30 years ago caused reverberations changing lives for decades to come.
During spring break 1988, 65 Baylor University students traveled from Waco to the Texas border near Harlingen for a mission trip organized by the Baptist Student Union. Cone Oasis Baptist Encampment housed the student volunteers, who served seven churches in surrounding towns such as Monte Alto and La Paloma.
The students worked with the churches to improve facilities, doing construction work, painting, moving bricks, digging septic tanks and planting flower beds. They also provided student teams to lead Sunday worship and to conduct four Backyard Bible Clubs throughout the area. Participants recalled the joy they felt, working together and sharing meaningful times.
Heartache outside Harlingen
But their joy turned to heartbreak March 12, 1988. Eighteen cars driving in a northbound caravan were 40 miles from Harlingen when a drunk driver struck the lead car, killing the driver, 23-year-old Sharla Smelly and a passenger, 22-year-old Michael Lowery, and injuring two others, Adrian Farris and Bobby Olsen.
“When I went up to the car window, I kept uttering Sharla’s name, but I couldn’t put a prayer together,” Shawn Shannon recalled. “And I said, ‘Lord, I’m sorry I cannot pray.’ But the Lord said, ‘I’ve got this covered.’ And I looked up, and all around the students were clustered praying.”
In the months that followed, team members went separate ways, but it left emotional wounds on those who experienced this accident together. But the story didn’t end there.
Reuniting team members
Adrian Farris Etie, one of the students injured in the wreck, and Debbie Wallace began a search to track down the team members after three decades for a reunion. They discovered members of the mission team scattered coast to coast, and several lived in Asia.
Nonetheless, they successfully planned a reunion in Waco Feb. 17, scheduled to coincide with the recent re-establishment of the Baptist Student Ministry at Baylor after a 20-year hiatus.
“Throughout the planning process, we sensed the Lord leading us to call our friends back and be together,” Etie said. “I’m not sure that we’ve ever been all together in the same room since the morning we left Harlingen.”
Twenty-eight members of the 1988 spring break missions team gathered for the event to celebrate God’s work on the trip and honor the lives who gave the ultimate sacrifice. With laughter and tears, team members recounted their heart-wrenching stories.
“This trip affected us in different ways,” said James ‘J.J.’Jones. “And if healing had not begun over the last 30 years, this definitely was the opportunity for it to start. I’m so glad we had this time together once again.”
Recounting the meaningful experience, the gathered alumni said they were reminded of the powerful impact that campus ministries and mission trips have on college students. They remembered two student missionaries who gave their lives in Christian service—and they reflected on how their legacy was being carried on through the newly re-instituted Baylor BSM.
A new generation of Baylor students found inspiration from the team who served three decades earlier, said Charles Ramsey, BSM director at Baylor.
“Baylor students are so dynamic and capable, and they want mentors and role models,” he said. “They long to glean from the example of those who were active in the BSU/BSM and other Christian ministries in years past.”
Currently, “Lights Shine Bright” is a Baylor emphasis, as the university seeks to challenge students to make a positive impact on the world.
“We are planning an inaugural meeting for the BSM Alumni on Homecoming 2018,” Ramsey said. “And this creates a way to meet with dear friends, to participate in the festivities, and to share in the life of Baylor students who are actively carrying forward the torch.”
Debbie McLendon Wallace contributed to this report. The Baylor BSM invites former alumni of the campus ministry to reconnect—and learn about current and future events—at the group’s Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/BaylorBSM/. Charles Ramsey can be reached at Charles_ramsey@baylor.edu.