As a recently ordained minister, I found myself wondering why God would send me back into the field in which I worked before seminary—creating films and videos.
Yet, there I was in late February doing just that by becoming a senior video production specialist at Baylor University, a place with an outspoken Christian mission and vision. I arrived eager to discover if the University’s Christian commitment was more than words.
Soon after my arrival, I heard the story of David Grotberg’s tragic death; in July I met his family and began to record and share their story.
David joined the Honors College as a Baylor freshman in fall 2015. Slightly more than a year later—Oct. 6, 2016—a car struck him while he was riding his bicycle on Waco’s Franklin Avenue; the car drove away. David died instantly. The tragedy sent shockwaves through the Honors College, the larger Baylor community and David’s family in Fergus Falls, Minnesota.
Fergus Falls in northwest Minnesota is closer to North Dakota than it is to Minnesota’s Twin Cities. From the Hector International Airport in Fargo, North Dakota, the journey to the Grotberg home travels through miles of lush green hills dotted by clear blue lakes. In the winter months, this land sleeps beneath a thick blanket of snow; but this was late June, and the fields were brimming with life. After one last turn onto a dirt road, their home, a white farmhouse on 10 acres of pastoral beauty, comes into view.
“If God was good yesterday and the day before, then He’s good now.”
Imagining what David’s life must have been like as a child in this bucolic landscape wasn’t hard, since David’s younger brother and four sisters offer a glimpse of that life. They spin around on a huge swing, likely crafted from an old tractor tire. They ride their bikes down the gravel driveway. They tend to newborn kittens, race their farm dog, and mostly ignore the grumpy roosters that strut between the red barn and lake behind the house. These long summer days—the sun creeps up before 5 a.m. and is not fully down until well after 10 p.m.—seem to stretch on forever, beckoning for long adventures beneath the peaceful Midwestern sky.
Clark Grotberg, David’s father, calls this their “slice of heaven.” It feels like a corner of Eden—a place where one could almost forget that the world is a broken place. However, no matter where we live, the world has a way of reminding us that it is not our home.
On that October night in 2016, the family was in bed when the sheriff’s deputies knocked on the door. The officers relayed the message from the Waco Police Department about the death of David—the firstborn son of Clark and Diane, the older brother of Mary, Elizabeth, Thomas, Sarah, and Alexandra. Diane screamed. Clark put his arms around his wife. The deputies stood in silence as the weight of their message ripped through the Grotberg home.
After a period of painful silence intermingled with the sobs of grief, Clark looked at his wife and said the only thing he could think of at the time, “God is good.”
He repeated the phrase. Talking to Clark, it is clear there was—and is—nothing inauthentic about his words. He wasn’t saying it because he thought it was how he was supposed to react. Neither had he planned out what he would say should such a tragedy ever come his way. Contemplating now the array of possible reactions, Clark concedes some surprise that his response wasn’t along the lines of “Who did it? I am going to hunt them down.”
In that moment though, the words that arose were “God is good.”
“If God was good yesterday and the day before, then He’s good now,” Clark says. “If He was good when David was here with us, safe and at home, then He’s good even now. God is good, and God is with us, and David is with Him.”
His initial response and the family’s continued walk following such a terrible tragedy did not come from a place of strength or superhuman willpower; it came from a place of total and complete emptiness. It found its roots in their weakness, and its foundation was built upon their vulnerability.
When everything else crumbled, they realized that only one thing remained—their faith in Jesus Christ, the Almighty Son of God who emptied Himself to share in our suffering.
As news of David’s death began to spread through Baylor’s campus, Dr. Burt Burleson, University chaplain and dean of spiritual life and missions, and several of David’s professors called the family to express their condolences. A plan soon formed to bring all seven Grotbergs to Waco.
Gail Offringa, then a relatively new face in the Baylor Parents Network, organized the details of their trip. In Gail’s mind, she was woefully unprepared; but, almost simultaneously, she understood that so were the Grotbergs.
Looking back on that week, she invokes the words of Moses before the burning bush, “Who am I, Lord?” Undoubtedly, many of us can identify with her trepidation. Before something so great and terrible as the death of a child, what can we offer? Whatever skills or wisdom we possess often seem trite when faced with tragedy.
Nonetheless, she was told to go, to be present and to listen. In this act of faithfulness, God began to work through Gail and, just like Moses, she soon found that she was not alone in this task.
After arriving in Fergus Falls, the Grotbergs and I sat around the kitchen table for dinner. Cameras remained packed away; filming could wait. I wanted to get to know the Grotbergs without cameras or microphones coming between us. They spoke with sincere gratitude about how the people of Baylor had been and continued to be “the hands and feet of Christ” to them.
They talked about Gail. They discussed the memorial service and the words of countless professors and students that meant so much to them. They told the story of packing up David’s room with his friends. Clark recalled riffing on David’s eccentricities and apologizing to David’s roommate for having to share a room with his son. They shared laughs as well as tears.
David was a member of the Baylor University Golden Wave Marching Band (BUGWB). Dr. Isaiah Odajima, associate professor of ensembles and the director of BUGWB, spoke at the memorial service, and Diane said she was struck by how well he knew David.
“He talked about David as if he really mattered, and it really mattered that he was gone,” Diane says. “I thought, yes, that’s such a statement of life. Life matters, and David’s life mattered.”
The following Saturday was Homecoming, and the Grotberg family was invited on the field at McLane Stadium as David’s framed band uniform was presented to them with a memorial plaque. Mary, the oldest Grotberg daughter, was invited to play and march with BUGWB.
While walking through the stadium, Diane was approached by a student who had seen the presentation. The student asked if she could pray for Diane and her family. There among a crowd of thousands, the student invoked God for comfort and peace in the midst of this tragedy. Diane does not know the student’s name, but the prayer has stayed with her.
The week drew to a close, and the Grotbergs returned to Minnesota. The funeral service was held in Fergus Falls, but Baylor was present. Gail, a native Minnesotan, attended.
“I have come to realize that when a tragedy like this happens you need three things,” Diane says. “You need comfort, you need hope, and you need joy.”
The comfort that the Grotbergs received at Baylor was more than they expected from an institution more than 1,000 miles from their home. The words, the presence, the prayers and the shared sense of loss were palpable agents in beginning to heal an indescribable wound.
“We lost one kid and gained 20.”
Their hope was found in their Christian faith. Soon after arriving in Waco, they realized that they shared this robust faith with the faculty, staff and students they were encountering.
“They spoke to us about the Christian hope, the hope of the resurrection,” Diane says. “And I thought, these people are Christians. This isn’t a place where they just say we’re a Christian university. No, these people are living the Gospel, and they shared the Gospel with us in our deepest need.”
The Grotbergs also were recipients of a joy they could not have foreseen coming from such a horrific event. David’s closest friends in the Honors College have become a part of the Grotberg family. Kaitlyn Morris, David’s girlfriend, and Andrew Bass, one of his best friends, journeyed to Fergus Falls to stay with the Grotbergs on the farm for over a week before my arrival. Other friends had come before and more were planning trips.
They told me about the constant communication they had with these students, the phone calls and Skype sessions. Sometimes the students call for advice and other times just to talk.
“We lost one kid and gained 20,” Clark says with a smile.
Diane looks at this as a manifestation of joy. “The Lord is restoring joy to us through Baylor kids,” she says. “And I keep thinking, ‘What is this place? What is this place that takes such good care of us and is so very Christian and has kids like this?’”
The love the Grotbergs have for Baylor is undeniably genuine. It is rooted in their time at Baylor and in the people they encountered. It is the kind of love that sees the University for what it can be, what it should be, and what it was for them through this loss.
Sitting at their table, sharing in their story and spending time with the family that weekend, I came to realize that Baylor also needed the Grotbergs. Their remarkable faith in the Christian story—a story of God’s redemption and restoration of all things—is a story to which we at Baylor must cling when all seems lost.
The Grotbergs gave me eyes to see a vision of Baylor I sincerely needed. I am so grateful that they were willing to share their story, pain and joy with me.
I never met David, but I believe I will. I sincerely look forward to that day. Until then, I hope to tell the story of Baylor as he saw it, as his family experienced it, and on which its foundations were laid.
“And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away. And the one who was seated on the throne said, ‘See, I am making all things new.’”
Revelation 21:3-5, NRSV
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