Home of Wheaton Bible Church's Quarterly Magazine
Chris and Kathy Pelkey’s twenty-year-old daughter, Bethany, a college junior, away at school in Davenport, Iowa, had been hit by a car and killed.
That tragic loss took the couple, and the other two members of their blended family, to a dark and devastated place.
For Kathy, especially, Bethany’s death brought on a crisis of faith. She had been raised in the Catholic church and had continued to be involved in the church for much of her life. Even before the tragic loss of her firstborn, she had sought spiritual connection in prayer services led by a priest who had also become a friend. But the loss of Bethany, Kathy’s daughter and Chris’s stepdaughter, forced her to a place of deep spiritual crisis.
“One day, not long after we lost Bethany,” she said, “I remember standing in my kitchen and telling friends about how I was feeling as if I was just holding on, as if I were being pulled down into this black hole underneath me and holding on to the edge—so close to just letting go. God was either going to help me out of it, or I was going to fall into that pit.
“I chose to go with God,” she said.
That decision didn’t take away Kathy’s pain, but it was the first step on a faith journey toward hope and healing that continues to this day.
Chris, too, was raised in a family that considered itself Catholic, but he found little meaning in religion. He had no interest in the church in his teen and young-adult years, but as a single dad raising a young daughter, he felt the need for a church connection in her life.
Dealing with Loss
Chris and Kathy were both single parents when they met 18 years ago, each with a first-grader at the same Catholic elementary school. The girls were friends, and their parents met at the sixth birthday party of Chris’s daughter, Amanda. In the weeks that followed, a friendship grew between Chris and Kathy, and a year later they were married.
The blended family, including the two girls and Kathy’s younger son, had formed a solid unit as the years passed, and all were badly shaken by Bethany’s death. But unlike many couples whose marriages are torn apart by that kind of devastating tragedy, Chris and Kathy pulled together to find the help they needed to work through their loss.
They first sought support in a group for grieving parents, but after a couple of sessions realized that many who spoke at the meetings had found no healing—in some cases many years after their loss. The Pelkeys found it difficult to listen as those parents returned week after week to express their anger at the person who caused the accident or at inadequacies of the police investigation or other aspects of their loss and pain.
“There was no God in those meetings,” Kathy says, “so we went looking for something else.”
They’d heard about GriefShare, and Chris recalls how they went on the GriefShare website, where they learned that a group met at Wheaton Bible Church—near their Winfield home and right in the West Chicago neighborhood where Kathy grew up.
Their GriefShare experience, and the curriculum the group used, was just what they needed. “It wasn’t just everybody sitting around a table talking about their loss,” Kathy says. “We learned about what the Bible says about grief and how God meets us in the middle of our pain.”
At that time, their grief was fresh, and GriefShare offered Chris and Kathy insight about what they were going through, helping them through those early stages of grieving and preparing them for what they would experience in the days ahead.
As they were on the church campus for those Monday-night meetings, Kathy says, “we started looking around. And it looked really interesting.”
They wondered what services at the church were like, so when a friend and her husband agreed to join them to check it out, all four of them came the next Sunday morning.
“A lot of it,” Kathy says, “was the hand of God, because everything just kind of fell into place.”
The friend, who was also visiting for the first time, recognized one of the people serving Communion. It was Duane Martin, who had attended a grad-school class with her.
Duane’s wife, Mary Ellen, recalls, “It just so ‘happened’ that Duane and I were Communion servers that morning and that Cindy, the woman from Duane’s masters class, noticed him.”
As soon as the service was over, the Pelkeys and their friends sought out Duane.
“We told him what a great place this was, and about our experience in GriefShare. We also told him how much we had enjoyed the service,” Kathy recalls, “and how we were looking for something new.”
Chris remembers his first impression of the sermon they heard that day. “I’d never gotten anything like that from church,” Chris said about Pastor Rob’s sermon. “He spent like twenty minutes explaining just two verses and the whole history behind them.”
As Chris and Kathy talked with the Martins that morning, Duane mentioned the Alpha class. Chris and Kathy were intrigued, and when Duane responded to their questions with a personal invitation, they accepted.
Kathy remembers thinking that it was such a big church but they felt so welcomed.
Not only did Duane invite the Pelkeys to Alpha; he and Mary Ellen also attended the Thursday evening class right along with them.
As their table moved into the discussion time that evening, the first question for their group was, Have you had something happen in your life that changed your life forever?
“I was stunned,” Mary Ellen said, “and so sorry when Chris mentioned their daughter’s death.”
Chris and Kathy’s experience in Alpha brought even deeper healing as they saw the bigger picture of God’s grace, knowing that even in their grieving, God is with them.
Although Chris was raised with something of a religious tradition, he points to an evening at Alpha as the time he realized that salvation was not a “works thing” and he prayed, entering into a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.
The combination of what the Pelkeys were learning at Alpha and the teaching on Sunday mornings was having a powerful impact on their lives. “We’ve learned more in the three years we’ve been here than in our previous lifetimes,” Kathy says. “It seems like I just can’t wait to read something more and dive into it a little deeper. The fun thing about a relationship with Jesus is that there’s always more to know and more to learn.”
Mary Ellen is thankful for these new friends that God has given them. “It has been incredible to see the transformation in their lives over these years,” she said. “God gave them such a hunger to know Him.”
She adds, “I’ve seen Chris and Kathy say yes to God and then immediately want to tell others about Jesus. Once their first session of Alpha was over, they went through the course again—this time leading a table themselves—and now they lead a Beyond Alpha Bible study group. They get disciple making.”
“Today, we have an ‘after-Alpha’ Bible study that meets at our house every Thursday,” Kathy said. “I call them our Alpha babies—although some of them are close to our ages—and I tell Duane and Mary Ellen these are their ‘Alpha grandchildren’ in that group.”
Because of what they’ve been through, Kathy and Chris have had many opportunities to share with others. “It gives us the perfect platform to talk about what God has done in our lives—that happens a lot,” Kathy said, “and God gives me the words to say.”
She also finds that a lot of people will ask her to pray for them, but she’s eager to tell them that they can pray themselves and have their own personal relationship with God. “You can talk to God personally,” I tell them, “and He listens.”
Kathy is thankful, too, for the Martins, who welcomed her and Chris that Sunday morning. “Duane and Mary Ellen have become good friends of ours,” Kathy says. “I am thankful for the way they shepherded us through Alpha and through our relationship with God—and it’s a continuing thing. We still talk to them and bounce things off of them. They don’t always have an easy answer, but most of the time they have pointed us to where we could find answers in God’s Word.”
There are still tough days as Kathy and Chris deal with the loss of their daughter, but over and over again, God has affirmed that He is with them in their pain.
“We aren’t seeking to understand why Bethany died. We’ll never, ever understand that,” Kathy admits. “But we do know that there is a bigger plan, and it’s our faith in God and His grace that’s holding us up through it all.
As her journey through loss has continued, Kathy has become more and more intimately acquainted with the God of all comfort, who gives her reminders of His love for her just when she needs it most.
“The sadness is still there,” Kathy says, “but the depth of the pain that I feel is the depth of the grace I’ve received.”