Life

Charlie crosses final finish line

Kathy’s first words to me this morning at the kitchen table were “Your track friend died.”

At the same that I was asking “Who?” I was thinking it was probably Charlie Foster. Charlie wasn’t the only friend I made while running track, but he was definitely the one whose death would be the main story on the front page of the sports section. And not just in our local paper. News of his death was reported across the country.

When I started running track as a sophomore at Spartanburg High School, Coach Voyles said if I could get down to a certain time in the 120-yard high hurdles, I’d probably win all of my races. I got down to whatever that time was by our first track meet, but I didn’t come close to winning every race. One big reason was a guy named Charlie Foster who was also a sophomore at rival Gaffney High School.

The first time I ran against Charlie, I had no idea who he was, and based on our times coming into the meet, I was expected to win. The meet was at the Gaffney High School football stadium, which had no track. It was the only place in my whole career where everything was run on grass. No problem. But there was a problem at the finish line that I was totally not expecting since we usually just warmed up over the first few hurdles. Coming over the 10th and final hurdle, I was in the lead and confident of winning. As I looked toward the finish line, all of a sudden I saw something just beyond the stretched string I planned to break. Bleachers. Aluminum bleachers used during football season were sitting about 10 feet beyond the finish line. Are you kidding me?! How was I supposed to finish my sprint without crashing into those stupid bleachers? Consciously or unconsciously I made the decision to slow down as I approached the string. Charlie leaned forward and hit the string at full speed a tenth of a second ahead of me. He and another Gaffney runner ran up the bleachers as they had obviously done many times before. A third Gaffney runner in the outside lane maneuvered deftly around the bleachers.

I don’t remember exactly what I said or did, but I’m sure I was frustrated and mad. I probably complained to Coach Voyles that it was unfair. He probably agreed and said there was nothing we could about it. Just wait until we got to run them again at our place. It would be a different story at Wofford College where our home meets were held.

But not different enough. Charlie once again beat me by one tenth of a second. Thanks to the county meet, regionals, and various invitationals, I would run against Charlie quite a few more times that year. He beat me every time - each time by one tenth of a second.

Things changed our junior year, but not in my favor. I might have been a little bit better our second year, but Charlie was a lot better. A lot. Forget one tenth of a second. Our races weren’t even close. Charlie had become one of the best track athletes in the southeast. A serious case of mono my senior year meant my track career was over. A serious case of continued improvement by Charlie meant his was just getting started. He became one of the best high hurdlers in the country winning the 1971 Junior National Championship and tying the high school world record at the Golden State Relays.

Charlie Foster at hurdle.jpg

Beyond high school, Charlie’s accomplishments were too numerous to mention here. They included winning the NCAA Championship, the US National Championship, a Gold Medal in the World University Games, and being top ranked in the world. He was favored to win the gold medal in the 1976 Olympics, but finished fourth thanks to a pulled hamstring if my memory is correct. After years of running on the world stage, Charlie (who somewhere along the way became Charles) had a long career coaching track at UNC, Clemson, and Virginia Tech.

Kathy referred to Charlie this morning as my track friend, and he was, but I can’t claim that I ever got to know him well. At all of our meets he competed in too many events to do much socializing. Though high hurdles was his specialty, he could do about anything track related and his team took great advantage of his talent. I remember in one dual meet Gaffney’s track coach knew that they needed every point to try to beat us, so he entered Charlie in the high jump hoping he might pick up a point. Though he had never competed in that event before that day, Charlie not only won the high jump but set the school record for it in the process. In track they do a first call, second call, and final call for athletes to gather at the starting line for their races. Because of competing is so many events, he was rarely at the blocks for first or second call, raising hopes that we might not have to run against him. Upon hearing final call he’d come trotting over probably from the long jump pit just in time to step in the blocks. Wherever he was, he was easy to spot. Our sophomore year he wore a white cap, which was replaced with a fur cossack hat our junior year. Even through his coaching days he was noted for his hats.

I’ll offer two conclusions to my memories of Charlie. Both are true so take your choice.

The Sentimental Conclusion: A few days ago, March 31, Charles Wayne Foster got the final call and crossed the finish line for the last time.

The What I Usually Think Of When I Think of Charlie Foster Conclusion: If it weren’t for those stupid bleachers I could say that I beat one of the best high hurdlers of all times.

RIP. Run in peace, Charlie.

Charlie Foster older.jpg







Storm

(Much appreciation goes to Storm's mother and grandparents for their permission, blessings, and encouragement to share his story, and to Marion Humphrey for his help in many ways.)

Storm official.jpeg

I won't pretend for a second that I and our staff get as close to the students who come to Seesalt and Chillipepper as the adult leaders who bring them, much less as close to them as some of their family members and friends. But we do get close to many. We care about all them. A lot.

So the hurt is very real when we lose one of "our kids" as we did last week. Sadly, this is by no means the first time this has happened. I'm sorry to say that I have lost count not just of how many of our former students have passed away, but of how many met the Lord at Seesalt or Chillipepper and are now with Him. Some that committed their lives to Christ finished their earthly race even before the next year. That was the case with Storm.

I got the first message of Storm's passing from Marion, one of Storm's adult leaders, a few hours after he died. Marion and Sally, the church youth director, were also the first ones who told us about Storm when their group checked into our Seesalt summer student conference this past summer.  Storm had not previously been a part of their youth group but had shown up shortly before Seesalt to help out with a local mission project the group was doing. Marion and Sally had reached out to Storm in very caring ways. Marion gave Storm an old pair of worn out work gloves big enough to fit his hands.  No one had any idea what a special and important relationship had begun. When Storm heard the group was going to Seesalt, he asked if he could go with them, so he was added to the group at the last minute.

AT SEESALT

Marion and Sally told me that first day that they had some reservations about bringing Storm. They said Storm was a handful and lived up to his name. In addition to being unpredictable and sometimes hard to deal with, I learned that three weeks earlier Storm had put a loaded gun to his head. He still wasn't sure why he hadn't pulled the trigger. That, of course, meant we would all need to watch him even more carefully. (Sadly, that's something we've needed to do more times than you might think.) They hoped Storm wouldn't cause too many problems, but really felt like he needed to be there. I reminded Sally and Marion of something they'd heard me say for many years - if everyone just brought their perfect angels, it might make all of our jobs easier, but that's not why we do what we do. We know there are troubled teenagers in the world, and that's who we most need to be reaching.

The next morning, first-year Seesalt staffer Abbey came to me after Bible study groups had met. She told me that she had a guy in her group that had been extremely disruptive, and she wasn't sure she was going to be able to handle him. It wasn't hard to guess who it was. We reviewed some of the options we had talked about in training camp for dealing with students who are less than cooperative, and talked about what to do next. We concluded with a reminder that very often the students who are the biggest problems at the beginning of the week turn out to be the biggest reasons for joy by the end of the week. We prayed that would be the case with Storm.

I didn't actually figure out who Storm was until that night. Our theme this past summer was "Solid Rock," a 50's theme, and included a sock hop in the gym. (In case you aren't up on 50's culture, sock hops were dances that required removing your shoes so as to not scuff up the gym floor.) As I looked out across the gym at hundreds of people having a great time, I quickly noticed one guy who was not having a great time. I asked Kathy if that was Storm, and she verified that it was. Storm was one of the larger 15-year olds we've had with us. He towered over most of those around him, which only accented that he was not having fun. His obituary said he "did not know the meaning of hate or prejudice." This may have been the one exception, because I'm pretty sure Storm was hating the Bunny Hop. 

Abbey and Storm.jpg

As the week continued, Storm was very much in our prayers and we saw steady signs of progress. One afternoon, Storm elected to go to the personal interest conference that Abbey was leading Afterwards he talked to her about how he had nearly killed himself a few weeks earlier. He said he was beginning to understand why he had not pulled the trigger.

At the end of our worship service on the last night of Seesalt, Storm responded to the invitation to make a commitment to the Lord. In the "chat room" with Marion, he invited Jesus Christ into his life as his personal Savior and Lord. When our staff learned later that night that Storm was one of the students who had committed his life to Christ, there were plenty of tears of joy and prayers of thanksgiving. 

The change in Storm was immediate and dramatic. Among other things, he was excited to tell anybody who would listen that he had become a Christian.  It's exciting to see those commitments at Seesalt, but the real test is what happens when we all go home. By all accounts, Storm passed that test with honors.

AFTER SEESALT

The next time I saw Storm was about a month later when Kathy and I were at his church to do an "Art to Heart" presentation. I had heard he was doing well, and I hoped he would be there so I could talk to him personally.  Before the service, I was in the restroom putting my headset mic on, and a big guy came busting through the door.

"Hey, Mr. Bill! I was at Seesalt this summer. I got saved! I don't know if you remember me or not, but I'm Storm!"  This excited, full-of-joy young man was not the same Bunny Hop hating guy I had seen at Seesalt. We talked for quite a while in the men's room, specifically about how he was doing spiritually and what he was doing to continue growing in his month-old faith. He had brought his family to the program that night, so he introduced them to Kathy and me, and we got the chance to talk with them for a while. 

At some point, Storm was baptized in a river, and was so much bigger than the preacher that he had to be baptized sitting in a chair.  Storm was at our Chillipepper conference in January, but I'm sorry to say that I didn't get much of a chance to talk with him beyond brief pleasantries. From talking to others, I know that Storm's desire to tell others about Jesus continued.  In recent months, his biggest concerns were that some of those closest to him would get their lives right with God as he had done.

The first message I got from Marion last week began: "Bill, I don’t know if you remember Storm form Seesalt at Mars Hill this past summer, he was the young man that had shared with Abbey about putting a gun to his head. It hurts to write you and let you know that Storm has gone home to be with his savior, Jesus." My heart broke. My immediate fear was that Storm had taken his own life. I was very convinced of the reality of his conversion, but I know that even genuine Christians still have problems and dark moments and do tragic things. 

Marion went on say that Storm had been found in the field beside his house where he had been running to get in shape for football. Preliminary investigation revealed "no signs of any trauma to his body." An autopsy was scheduled for two days later. Nothing would bring Storm back, but I prayed that the autopsy would not reveal more sad news.  Marion and Sally stayed in touch, and told me that Storm's father had died at an early age of complications from an enlarged heart. Nothing about Storm's life during the past eight-and-a-half months suggested anything other than that he was excited about living his life to the fullest, but the autopsy report was still a welcomed relief. Storm died of a massive heart attack. He had an enlarged heart, liver, and spleen. He died doing something he loved.

THE MEMORIAL SERVICE

Storm's family received friends in the church gym before the funeral. The first two people in the receiving line were his maternal grandparents - both Christians. When they found out Kathy and I were from Seesalt, they jumped up from their chairs, and with tears streaming hugged us like old friends. His grandmother said Storm had called her from Seesalt that night to tell her that he had been saved. He told her in great detail what he had done, how he was feeling, and they rejoiced together. His grandfather excitedly told us that Storm came back from Seesalt a totally different guy. He said the change was amazing, and that "he never changed back." Some of us talk a lot about how Jesus changes lives. I believe that with all my heart and mind, and I've seen it happen countless times. But it's always affirming to be reminded that it's not just talk and belief. It's real.

We spoke next to Storm's mother, who obviously loved her son with all her heart.  I immediately noticed that she was wearing his "Even if..." wristband that he had gotten at Chillipepper. It went along with a message I preached based on Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. It was a reminder that we need to remain faithful "even if" things don't turn out the way we want them to. Losing your only son, especially at such an early age, has to be one of the biggest "even if" challenges imaginable. Unless we've experienced that personally, I don't think any of us can fully understand or appreciate the hurt of a mom in such a situation. You can know that your son is in a better place far greater than we can imagine because of his faith in Jesus, but that still doesn't erase the sorrow. Please pray for Storm's mom and all those who will always miss him.

The church was packed for the funeral with people sitting in the choir loft, in added chairs, and in an overflow room near the sanctuary. Marion was one of those who spoke and he did a great job of telling how Storm came to know the Lord. He had been with him every step of the way. Others told of the change in Storm's life. It included his new love of contemporary Christian music which he shared with others, sometimes whether they liked it or not. Upon turning 16 in January he became a volunteer fireman, and around 30 of his fellow firefighters were on hand as his honorary escort.  It was mentioned that his goal was to become a football player and "become good enough so that when he did something good he could kneel down and give God the honor and credit."

Among the things written in the memorial service bulletin: "...He was bigger than life itself... A big bear of a young man with the most gentle heart... He lived his life full speed and all out... He loved and was loved tremendously..." 

The day of Storm's funeral was a rollercoaster of emotions. We laughed and we cried, sometimes at the same time. We talked with a lot of students and parents of students who had come to Seesalt and Chillipepper over many years. My thoughts were primarily on Storm and his family, but I couldn't help but also do a lot of serious reflecting on the larger implications of ministry. None of my thoughts were new, but they took on even more depth and weight.

I was reminded of why we do what we do. Ministry is not easy. At times there are challenges that make it hard to continue. I'm very much aware that there are others who can do what we do, but I was thankful that we've continued.

I'd like to think that we do some pretty good things at Seesalt and Chillipepper that make a difference, but I was reminded that none of what we do could make much of difference without faithful adult leaders in the churches which allow us to share in their ministry. Without faithful people like Sally and Marion, kids like Storm (or anyone else) would never come our way. They reached out to him, and cared for him, but that was just the start. There were times that Storm wasn't sure what was going on at Seesalt. Beyond our program and staff, he needed and had caring adult leadership to walk with him, love him, and guide him. And of course all that continued after our few quick days together were over. I have long sincerely said that people who work with teenagers are some of my favorite people in the world. My heroes are neither Marvel or D.C.

STRENGTH IN WEAKNESS

The fact that Storm considered taking his own life before he found his new life in Christ might be something that we'd like to forget about, but it is an important part of his story. It reminds us that God can rescue and restore us no matter how desperate we are.  It was interesting to hear how many of his friends described him as "care free," "loved by everyone," "without a worry in the world," etc.  It seems incongruous that anyone who was perceived as care free, without worries, and loved by everyone would considering ending his or her life. But it happens more than we'd like to think. The number of teenagers who take their own life is at an all-time frightening high. Even more make unsuccessful attempts, and far more seriously consider it.

I asked Marion if he knew why Storm had considered taking his own life. He did. They had talked about it a lot. The life of the party, throttle-wide-open kid that everyone knew and loved confided that at that point he felt like an outcast, that he didn't fit in, that nobody really cared about him. I know very few people who haven't felt like that somewhere along the way. Some of us feel it more strongly than others. There have always been people who cared about Storm and loved him deeply, but there was still something missing. Thankfully, even when Storm was at his lowest point, he found the strength to press on. He chose life. And as a result, four weeks later he chose life again - life that would be everlasting. Thanks to these two all-important decisions that Storm made, even in our sadness, we can celebrate the end of his time on earth.

We see people of all ages every day who are also in danger of being pulled under by their own private storms. Try to look beyond the smiles, the laughter, and the masks. We can't always tell who is hurting, so. to be on the safe side, it might be a great idea to love and care for everybody.

And how many reading this are in some degree of despair? At the risk of sounding simplistic, giving up is not the answer. There are people who care. And a God who cares more than we can imagine. He doesn't promise us a set length of life, but he does promise us a full and eternal life if we put our trust in Him.  

Storm found his life. I pray that his story encourages others that we can, too.