Community, Grief, and Learning: An Interview with Brenda Curtis and Keith Hall
On April 6, 2018, the bus of the Humbolt Broncos hockey team collided with a semi truck. Sixteen people died, including team statistician Brody Hinz. CCS graduate Brenda Curtis and Integration Year student Keith Hall conducted Brody’s memorial service. Janet Ross spoke to Brenda and Keith about that time.
Brenda: When the first reports came in about the bus crash we were in the middle of an ecumenical community concert at the Catholic Church with the Watoto Children’s Choir from Uganda. The choir had just stepped on stage and was beginning with a countdown: 10, 9, 8, … when someone showed me their cell phone – “Humboldt Broncos have been in an accident”. The choir sang a few songs but soon everyone in the audience had their cell phones out. By 8:15 pm we knew there were fatalities and that they were significant. The choir was asked to wrap up quickly and Father Joseph offered a prayer, naming the uncertainty of knowing about the fatalities. Everyone was invited to go to the Uniplex to wait together for more news. It was interesting that we were all at this concert, including our ecumenical ministerial group, and could all be at the Uniplex together. When we arrived, the city of Humboldt already had counsellors and many support people in place.
During the concert, I realized Brody wasn’t there. Brody doesn’t miss a chance to attend church. Even when he was out very late on the Saturday before Easter with the team, he emailed me to pick him up for the Easter Sunrise Service. I had a feeling he was on the bus again that night.
For all of us here, time is now organized as “pre-April 6 and post April 6”. April 6 in the calendar year is Tartan Day, which is a day we celebrate on the nearest Sunday with a Kirkin o’ the Tartans. We have had this celebration for many years, and now this day has another huge significance. So now we ask, “what do we do?”
Brody is the personal impact for us from the crash. He was the statistician for the team and was a very involved member of our community. Brody’s dad died when he was young, and since that time especially he became a member of our family. Brody has high functioning autism and his sister does as well. We were involved in his life is so many ways. Our kids were like siblings to him (choking back tears). Brody was the closest connection we had to those in the crash. I’m not a Bronco follower, but of course we know all the families of the kids in town.
I went to Darlene’s home, Brody’s mum, that night. It wasn’t until the middle of the night we received confirmation Brody was one of the deceased.
Keith: I was at home when the first reports came on the news. I’ve had some ongoing relationship with Westminster United and with Brenda. Even before she was my Diaconal Mentor, we had done many things together. One those things was the impactful trip to Cuernavaca with Quest Mexico. We took a joint youth group to Cuernavaca with ten young people from our churches. Through that process, I got to know the youth from Westminster including Brody. Brody was a unique soul and the things he noticed were not always the things others noticed. Wherever we went in Cuernavaca, I had a conversation with Brody about ‘how was that for you’. I did also know he was an absolute sports freak. He knew the statistics of any major team in most any sport. The night the first report of the bus crash came through I had a sickening feeling he was on the bus. I knew he had a role with the Humboldt Broncos, and the rest of it is a blur. At one point I texted Brenda saying, “I’m here, I’m thinking and praying for you.” And Brenda was waiting to hear about Brody. Later it was confirmed he was deceased. We talked about how to let the church communities know.
When we had come back from Cuernavaca, the kids as a group did worship and education sessions in a number of local churches. There were people from St. Martin’s (UCC) who knew Brody from that session and had heard him speak. We decided not to say anything until it was confirmed. The confirmation came through CTV news when they started releasing names. I talked with the ones in the youth group with Brody first.
Brenda: It was so difficult for them to identify bodies, that we didn’t say anything until after Darlene had identified Brody’s body.
Keith: I remember thinking the waiting was like eternity. I kept wondering about Brenda and her community and the families. There were many prayers that day. I admit I was begging God that it wasn’t Brody. It was not my finest prayer.
Brenda: Maybe those are our finest prayers.
Brenda: Our congregation is an extended family to Brody’s. My heart was breaking, but I was so worried for our congregation. They had taken him under their wing since he was young. They helped him go to Mexico. They talked sports with him, they found him jobs. And the young ones – Brody helped with Sunday School and he had just taken all the kids during the AGM and engaged in activities with them. Brody did not miss church. Unless he was away at a hockey game or with special Olympics, he did not miss church.
When he called to be picked up for the Easter Sunrise Service, he had gotten home at 3:30 in the morning from hockey. He came to the Sunrise Service, went home and slept for two hours and came back for the regular service at 10:30. We were having communion and he wanted to be there. That was the last time many of us saw Brody. I was just so worried about the children, and the community and the youth. The youth group had just had an event and Brody had left his pillow in my office. He was a little on the forgetful side. I never had a chance to get it back to him.
Keith: Jordan Cantwell came out to the Friday night regular Youth Group, and the Saturday was Brody’s funeral. I had such a huge respect for Brenda’s presence. I know she was overwhelmed, but she was insistent the youth group go ahead. I felt an amazing draw to be present for Brenda and also for the community. With the request for me to assist in Brody’s funeral, I realized how many details Brenda was dealing with and how much grace she was showing others through her own pain. She was such a stellar Diaconal Minister.
Brenda: On the Saturday morning of Brody’s memorial service, CCS called (Lori Stewart) and I remember saying to her, “Thank you, thank you, thank you. Because if it hadn’t been for what I learned at the Centre…(tearing up)… – I couldn’t have done this.” CCS taught me that we are not the only ministers in the congregation and we are not indispensable; the wisdom of the community is important.
I had been sitting at the kitchen table feeling like I was drowning. I sent an email to some wise members of our community and I said, “Can you to meet with me at 1:00 pm? I don’t know how to do this, I don’t know what to do.” They responded quickly.
We got together at 1:00 and that group of people calmed me, and we figured it out. We had a baptism planned for Sunday which couldn’t happen now, and the bulletins were already printed, too. Between the five of us we planned how to get through the weekend, how to help the youth group, how to help the congregation, and we planned for Brody’s service. They helped me to think through all the important pieces and they encouraged me to not do it on my own. This is where the conversation about involving Keith happened. I knew I needed help with the youth group. After that Jordan called and offered to help and the youth love her, so I said, yes, come help me do this.
We are not in ministry alone, we are in ministry together. That was what I was expressing to CCS when they called. I was so relieved when the learning from CCS bubbled up inside me and I knew I didn’t have to do it alone.
Keith: there was just so much you were doing – dealing with the community of Westminster alone was insurmountable, but you were also dealing with the Humboldt community’s grief and attending other memorials and funerals. With your training and what I have experienced at CCS, I saw you were able to weather all of that and hold it all together, and recognize you couldn’t do it by yourself.
Brenda: That was the grace. Having been here for 14 years, the community has a sense of ministry together. We do all kinds of things together, we share worship experiences and leadership. The community was not surprised to be called in, nor resistant to offering their own ministry. This comes from years of working together.
Keith: This was so evident when we started talking about Brody’s service. The Catholic priest said ‘our church is your church’ to us. I think this has to do with the work you have done before this – in your congregation, in your community – which is very diaconal in nature. Bringing people together, building bridges, building relationships.
Brenda: There are diaconal networks here and community networks and we bring all our ministry together before us. I think that whole sense of working in a team is one of the key things that certainly helped us to get through it. No one of us would have had the right gifts to do what needed to be done. I still find myself evaluating – just like we’ve been taught to do – we would have never been able to think that we would have to face something like this. I have learned about communication, understanding grieving and all the different places we can be in grief. When dealing one-on-one you can journey with someone and go where they lead. When dealing with a whole community, everyone is in a different place. With the recent arrest of the truck driver, too, everyone is in a different place.
Keith: In the days before Brody’s service I didn’t want to burden Brenda with my grief. It was really important to me to connect with my CCS community, with my classmates. That week was the week of the CCS graduation. I had really wanted to go to graduation, but I was stuck in a cast and I couldn’t find a good flight, but it was such a good thing I didn’t go. I called Lisa (Byer-de Wever, current CCS student) and asked her if she could offer prayers. I talked with Kim (McNaughton, current CCS student), requesting her prayers and those of the CCS community. The day of that service I was hyper aware of being held and embraced by CCS. For me this was one of the things that got me through that service. I remember walking up the aisle and my heart was pounding and Brody’s casket was open and I thought I’m not going to be okay. But I thought about Lisa and about Kim and I knew I was going to be okay. I had such a strong sense of presence from Brenda and my colleagues and friends. This helped me maintain my equilibrium.
Brenda: Ditto. I could not have done this by myself. Having Keith’s presence there was so important. Talking about the ministry of presence, I didn’t even know how to formulate the questions, much less have any answers. To have someone’s presence was so important. Even Friday night sitting with Darlene as she kept asking about Brody – hoping he was in a field somewhere and they hadn’t found him. There is nothing to say to a mother in those cases. Being there with her was everything. It was so powerful.
Keith: The other thing that strikes me – and this is something CCS teaches – is that we have learned to allow vulnerability with one another. Brenda and I were able to do this, especially on the day of the service. I remember vividly, standing in the cloak room after the service and Brody’s casket had been rolled in there. Brenda and I were changing out of our robes and we talked to one another and to Brody. I couldn’t have done that with just anyone. It was after the service when both of us needed some release before we met hundreds of people. There were kids from the team there and so many others. CCS also taught me what I need to do to be fully present for others.
Brenda: I was actually thinking about the three streams of diakonia [education, pastoral care and social justice]. Every community I’ve worked with has said to me, ‘your ministry is different.’ The education piece for me centers on the community, how we draw on all skills and gifts of the community. Second, it is about ongoing learning: who is God, how do we learn together. This made it possible for me to bring the five elders together. I have told people, “You are a minister. Let me help you develop your ministry.” This is an educational piece.
In thinking about the social justice piece, I realized this was around Brody. He is a kid who could have gotten lost in the cracks. He could have been discounted because of economic status and disability. He could have been one of those people who didn’t have support and empowerment to get him to where he was able to be. I truly believe from the bottom of my heart that if it had not been for the church community stepping up in a very justice kind of way for Brody, he would not have been the person he was. The day his father died, Brody was in church with us. I wasn’t sure what to do, but Darlene had asked that Brody stay in church. He was 7 years old and dancing to all the music. When he went to Sunday School I told the congregation that Brody‘s dad had died. You could feel the congregation’s heart breaking and from that moment on, Brody became a child of the community. Watching the community do what they did for Brody was astonishing. Brody had Asperger’s so he struggled with relationships. That’s how I ended up being his Big Sister.
Keith: The way that community embraced Brody was so evident to me, especially leading up to the trip to Cuernavaca. There was no doubt that Brody was going on that trip.
Brenda: The social justice experience of being in Mexico opened Brody’s eyes. I think he always felt he was one of the poorest economically, and when he realized there were people in the world who had less than him, this shook him. This is a justice piece. The justice is not in the accident, but it is really in Brody’s story.
Keith: Had the Westminster community not been there for Brody, the outcome would have been very different. He wouldn’t have had the opportunities he had to live out the things he was really good at.
Brenda: Brody knew a lot of people because he was so highly functioning – he had an incredible memory. Brody knew all the stats in his encyclopedia of sports from the last 50 years. I remember after the accident lamenting with others [about] what a loss of potential. Brody could have been a sports broadcaster, he was so brilliant. He was going to look after his mom and his sister – because his sister could never live independently. But someone said to me that Brody lived more in his short life than most of us could live in a lifetime – and this was because he was able to connect with so many. His is really a justice story.
Brenda: The other piece is that the people in our community felt really strongly that they had to tell Brody’s story. CBC wanted to come to the church service and we said no, we needed time to grieve. I didn’t want to do an interview request afterwards, but then I thought who else is going to tell Brody’s story if not for us. He wasn’t a hockey player. So I said yes, I’ll meet with you afterwards quietly. Two others did the same (a grade 12 student and another one). They did it, not because it was easy, but because it was an important part of the story. Brody was not a sports player and his story could have been lost in the shuffle.
Keith: His life was very different from the other hockey players.
Brenda: Another social justice piece is to tell the story of the Centre [for Christian Studies]. That education and experience taught me not only how to get through this, but how to lay the ground work for relationship.
Keith: And doing this very thing is healing for us. Being able to talk about Brody and knowing we are going to extend his story, and also lift up the importance of the diaconal approach. I was very aware that I needed to be direct with Brenda about my concern for her. This is part of the diaconal ethos.
Brenda: Yes, there is something about mutual accountability that is significant.
Keith: It is important to note that the process of grieving this tragedy and the process of this tragedy will go on for a long time. The worst part may not be over.
Brenda Curtis is a CCS graduate and Diaconal Minister in The United Church of Canada. She is in solo ministry at Westminster United, Humboldt, Sask., and she holds worship services every other week at Quill Plains United Church.
Keith Hall is a current CCS student and is in team ministry at St. Martin’s United Church in Saskatoon, Sask. Keith is a Candidate for Diaconal Minister and is in ministry for Youth and Young Adults, Newcomer Relations, Volunteer Management and Pastoral Care at St. Martin’s.