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Persevering Together: finding strength through trials within the body of Christ

Perhaps the most celebrated hallmark of Spring Arbor University is our community. It’s a term we use often, in everything from casual conversation to admissions materials. We want others to know what we so personally understand: Our university is a special place precisely because of the way we choose to live our lives together, in community. It’s a community full of grace, love, encouragement, humility, vulnerability and understanding, and it flows from the love that Christ demonstrates to us. It’s a multi-faceted, living, breathing extension of the Body of Christ that each member experiences differently. We laugh together in seasons of joy and cry together in seasons of pain. Most importantly, we persevere.

Jon Bahr was looking forward to the summer of 2018. He had recently wrapped up his first full academic year as Vice President for Enrollment & Marketing at SAU — and though there was still much to be done in Admissions during the summer months, Jon couldn’t help but look forward to all that the season had in store.

Jon Bahr

After all, it had been a busy year for the Bahrs: The family had moved twice; Jon’s wife, Megan, had given birth to a daughter, the couple’s fifth child (their oldest is 9); and Jon and Megan had begun renovations on their new home in Spring Arbor, with a big yard for the kids to play in and a spacious living area fit for hosting family and friends. Life was beginning to calm down for the first time since the family had moved from Wisconsin to Michigan in 2013.

They had planned for a productive yet relaxing summer, with home improvement projects and family time in mind. Yet, as is often the case, God had a different plan — one that would challenge Jon and his family in new ways, and ultimately lead them into a richer knowledge of his love and a greater understanding of community within the body of Christ.

At the beginning of July, Jon, Megan and the kids (and their yellow lab, Honey) traveled to Wisconsin to spend Fourth of July week visiting with family before Jon’s brother-in-law was deployed on his second tour of duty in the Middle East. On the last day of their visit, they decided to prolong their stay by a few hours to go to the local zoo, enjoy one more family dinner and wait out Chicago’s rush-hour traffic. Finally, in the evening, the Bahrs headed homeward.

Jon would later recount each decision that led to the event that changed the course of his family’s summer, starting with his family’s departure time and continuing with the decision to drive through, rather than around, Chicago; to make a rest stop in Michigan City, Indiana; to switch into the left lane.

These decisions and countless others situated the Bahrs, as though by appointment, in the direct path of a wheel and tire, which had separated from the speeding, uncontrolled vehicle of a drunk driver on the other side of the highway and come bouncing over the center median and toward the eastbound lanes.

The wheel went through the Bahrs’ windshield and into Jon’s face — and that’s nearly all that he remembers. He would learn the rest of the details after regaining consciousness at the University of Michigan Medical Center a couple of days later.

Jon, in the driver’s seat, had been immediately knocked out by the impact of the wheel and tire. The Bahrs’ vehicle drifted into the center guard rail, then back into traffic. Megan quickly grasped the steering wheel, guided the van into the rail and put it in park. Shook up, but mostly uninjured, Megan, the kids and Honey waited for help to arrive.

A helicopter transported Jon to a hospital in South Bend, Indiana, where surgeons made emergency repairs but ultimately decided they were unable to help him. He was transferred to the University of Michigan Medical Center and sent into facial reconstruction surgery for over 11 hours. Seven titanium plates and, as Jon tells it, “an untold number of screws” were used to hold together Jon’s face, which had been broken into over 50 pieces.

His survival was nothing short of a miracle. Jon was the fifth person to be admitted to the University of Michigan Medical Center after such an accident in 2018. Of those five, he was the only one to walk out.

The days following the accident were tough. Yet, Jon’s spirit remained unbroken. Once awake and brought up to date, he was overcome, not with anger, but with gratitude for the safety of his family and the life that he would continue to live. Through all the confusion and pain, one fact remained clear to the Bahrs: God was in control of it all.

Nurses would frequently check on Jon, asking a series of routine questions. What’s your name? What month is it? Where are you? Why are you here?

Jon’s response to the final question was always the same: “I’m here because I should have died in a car accident on Friday, but God has a different plan for my life.”

The Bahrs’ summer, year and lives had changed. They had a long journey of healing ahead of them — but they wouldn’t have to navigate it alone.

When the Bahrs moved from Wisconsin to Michigan, they left much of their immediate and extended family

behind. The decision was difficult, and the experience of being so far away from their support system was foreign, but Jon and Megan trusted in God’s plan for their family. They knew that SAU was a special place, exactly where they needed to be during this season of life. “I felt like SAU was different from other communities the minute I stepped onto campus for the first time,” says Jon. “Going through what we went through last summer did nothing but strengthen and reinforce that.”

The SAU community had become a “Michigan family” for Jon, Megan and the kids, and as such, members of the SAU community showed up alongside members of the Bahrs’ biological family to show support after the accident.

It started while Jon was in the hospital, when individuals the Bahrs knew through SAU visited and sent cards and messages of encouragement and prayer. Jon and Megan found comfort and reassurance in knowing that their SAU family was praying for them.

To the amazement of Jon’s doctors, nurses, family and friends, he was healing rapidly. Doctors had initially predicted that Jon would need to stay in the hospital for three months. They projected that his complete recovery would take a year. One week after being admitted to the hospital, Jon was released.

“One of the first things I noticed when we got home from the hospital was that our grass had been mowed,” says Jon. Marty Fortress, Director of SAU’s Physical Plant, had taken care of it, unasked.

Visits from the SAU community continued after Jon and Megan returned home. Groups came to help with landscaping and other projects. Bobby Pratt ‘92, Associate Dean of Students, brought a Core group to the Bahrs’ home to do a service project. Other visitors stopped by to bring meals, offer encouragement, play with the kids or just say hello.

At the beginning of the summer, the Bahrs had made a list of home improvement tasks that they were hoping to complete before the fall semester began. By the end of the summer, the entire list and more had been accomplished by the students, faculty, staff and families Jon and Megan had come to know through SAU.

“I think that we have a community that does such a phenomenal job of showing love and support and care for each other,” says Jon. “It’s people driving over and stopping in to check on you and make sure that you’re okay, people bringing meals and volunteering their own time and doing things that model and show that love and care, which I think is really unique.”

Jon returned to work at SAU 11 weeks after the accident — one week before he was initially set to be released from the hospital. Even as his physical healing continues, Jon shares the story of the accident as a testimony of God’s sovereignty and love and the extension of that love through community within the Body of Christ.

“God can work through even the greatest of tragedies to reveal his grace and mercy and to be glorified,” says Jon. “You can’t for one second doubt or question how God was in control and how God was guiding this entire process.”

When the summer of 2018 had just begun, and the Bahrs were planning their Fourth of July trip to Wisconsin, senior marketing major Caitlin Clark was already facing the greatest trial of her summer — and one of the greatest trials of her life.

That June, she had taken a break from her summer internship at Michigan International Speedway to travel to Massachusetts and sit at the bedside of her mother, who was dying from breast cancer. This close-up experience with illness and death was unfortunately not a new one for Caitlin, as members of her family had been struggling with illness for almost as long as she could remember.

It started when Caitlin was in the fifth grade, when her brother was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer called neuroblastoma. After battling cancer for a year, he went into remission, but later had a severe stroke that left half his body paralyzed and put him into a coma. After he woke from the coma, his doctors predicted that he would live for another week at most. He survived for another six months and passed away when Caitlin was in the seventh grade.

A couple of years later, when Caitlin was a sophomore in high school, her mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. Like Caitlin’s brother, her mother battled with cancer for a year before going into remission.

Caitlin Clark PA

Although Caitlin was raised in the Jackson, Michigan, area and attended a local Catholic high school (Lumen Christi), she wasn’t initially planning on attending SAU. After her second “God can work through even the greatest of tragedies  to reveal his grace and mercy, and to be glorified.” After her second visit experience and more than a few recruiting emails from Bryan Burk ‘13, Head Coach of Women’s Cross Country and Track at SAU, Caitlin changed her mind — in part because she wanted to stay near her family.

The structure of Caitlin’s family changed during her freshman year at SAU, when her parents divorced. By her junior year, Caitlin’s father had been diagnosed with kidney failure, and her mother had been diagnosed with breast cancer again. This time, the cancer was throughout her entire body.

It was in the summer after Caitlin’s junior year that her mother had been on vacation in Massachusetts and become too ill to travel home. Caitlin immediately made travel arrangements and was able to spend a few final days with her mother, although her mother was unconscious for much of their time together.

Caitlin had experienced a tight-knit community at her high school, but she never expected the same out of college. Through her season of grieving after her mother’s death, she realized that SAU is more than just where she goes to school — it’s a community in which she is an active participant, a sort of second family to which she belongs.

University Chaplain Brian Kono called Caitlin while she was in Massachusetts, even as he was in Montana on a retreat for SAU athletes. He prayed with Caitlin on the phone. “That was huge,” she says. Over the last academic year, Caitlin had looked to Brian as a mentor and had been meeting with him regularly. She also heard from Campus Pastor Ron Kopicko ‘77 multiple times over the summer.

Caitlin started to hear that faculty, staff and students on campus were praying for her. “Which is really cool, because I don’t like being the center of attention, but because they were praying for my family, it was unreal,” she says.

She received texts and emails of encouragement. Several members of the SAU community attended Caitlin’s mother’s funeral, including Caitlin’s on-campus boss, Director of Student Success and First Year Programming Carrie (Shaw ‘05) Williams ‘13. She even received the financial support that she needed to continue her studies at SAU.

The home that Caitlin shared with her mother was suddenly hers to care for. Staff and faculty offered to help her around the house and in the yard. Coach Burk and his wife, Chelsae (Rickwalt ‘15) Burk, Administrative Assistant for Student Development and Learning at SAU, were particularly supportive. They had made meals for Caitlin’s mother when she was sick, and they continued to help Caitlin after her mother had passed. “They pretty much have been my parents on campus,” says Caitlin.

When Caitlin sees Presidential Couple Brent and Christy Ellis around campus, they ask her how she’s doing, and Caitlin knows that they really care. She’s amazed that even they want to pray for her and keep up with her life.

Looking back, Caitlin feels like she was meant to come to SAU. The genuine care of the SAU community provided a level of support for her in her time of grieving that she may not have found at another university. For Caitlin, the trial of losing her mother brought the unexpected blessing of a newfound depth of community at SAU.

Even before her mother’s passing, Caitlin knew that the SAU community was unique. Since coming to SAU, Caitlin has experienced a lot of personal growth within community. “I’ve changed a lot,” says Caitlin. “I’ve completely changed my relationship with Christ.”

Caitlin Clark running

Now in her senior year, Caitlin is a Peer Advisor (PA) to her second Core group. After the death of her mother, she considered stepping down from her position as PA before the academic year started. “In a way, I felt like I wasn’t capable of caring for people when I was so broken inside, but then I realized, because I’ve gone through this, I can provide insight for people,” she says.

Like Jon, Caitlin wants to share her story with others — both to connect with them personally and to testify to what God has done in her life through the trials she’s faced. She echoes Jon’s thoughts when she tells others that, although it’s easy to ask “Why?”, we shouldn’t be surprised when we face difficulty in this world.

As James 1:2-3 says, “Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance.”

Jon, Caitlin and countless others have found support through trials within the SAU community. Because though God promises that we’ll face trials in this life, through the Body of Christ, in all of its varied expressions around the globe, we don’t have to face them alone. Together, we’ll face trials, and together, through the strength of community and the presence and power of God, we’ll persevere.