A Sad Story

September 27, 2011 by · 8 Comments
Filed under: Life, Religion, Youth 

Last night I was watching an anime (You’re Under Arrest season 3 – the story of a traffic patrol shift in a Tokyo district) episode that featured the story of a high school girl who died while crossing the street against the light, hurrying to tell the guy that she had admired from afar of her interest.  One of the traffic police who stars in the series found her diary near the accident scene, and later learned that the boy also liked her.

This brought to mind a story from my own past, which I don’t think I’ve ever told here.  My memory of events 26 years ago is fuzzy, so some dates or events may be wrong.

In December of 1984, my youth pastor asked me to consider attending an overnight retreat for youth from the presbytery (at the time I was in Tenafly, so this was Palisades Presbytery).  At this retreat the youth were led through a program about leadership development with the purpose of meeting and evaluating each other and then in the morning – choosing the Youth Advisory Delegates to the General Assembly, Synod, and Presbytery Council.  One youth was allowed from each church; there were about 15 or 20 of us at the retreat.  At the time I was a high school junior, and recently elected to be ordained as a Deacon in late January.

At the retreat I met many wonderful people.  One of the earlier activities was taking and evaluating and understanding the Myers-Briggs Temperament Test.  This was the first of many times that I took this test, and I ended up being an INFP.  Later in the evening, some of us spent time chatting and bonding and discovered that we were all INFP’s – and I’ve since found that INFP’s tend to find each other at events like this, drawn together.

One of these INFP’s was Jessica Berg.  Jessica was a year older than me, a senior from Ridgewood, NJ.  She was an Elder serving on their session at the time.  She and I just clicked – that kind of natural friendship where you feel like you’ve been friends all of your lives.  We bonded that evening over laughter and late night discussions with others.

In the morning we had elections for the positions.  First we elected a YAD and Alternate to the General Assembly (national) meeting.  A girl from another church was chosen as the YAD, and Jessica came in second.  I remember her being devastated.  She was given the option to step aside from the Alternate position to stand for Synod YAD, but chose to stay as Alternate.  The second election was for the Synod (regional) YAD, who ended up being me.   In some ways, these months were the start of my journey that has me at Princeton Seminary today.

In January, my youth pastor arranged an overnight retreat for our youth group and the Ridgewood youth group at our church.  (I suspect some match-making here, but I could be wrong.)  We had a great evening, and I found myself being very interested in Jessica.  I had her phone number.  It took me a long time to get up the courage to call her and ask her out.  For a while it was “I’ll call tomorrow”.

Finally I decided early in the week to call and ask her out on a Wednesday evening.  Earlier in the week was out because I was busy with one thing or another (probably Stage Crew, music, or church).

Wednesday evening rolled around.  It was around 5:30pm in the evening (I think).  I was in the basement playing with the computer, when my father called me upstairs.  My youth pastor was in the kitchen, still dressed up in a suit (he lived at the Associate Pastor’s manse around the corner from our house).  He told me that Jessica had died on Tuesday, January 22, 1985.  I had read the newspaper that Wednesday, but completely missed the story at the top of the Local section with her picture.  Jessica had been driving to choir practice and was killed when her car was struck by a train at at railroad crossing.

I was numb.  I don’t think I reacted correctly to this news.  According to my memory I was not sad, not in a crying heap.  I was just quiet.

On the following Sunday, I was ordained as a Deacon.  That evening Jessica’s memorial service was held at her church.  At that age, I was not ready to handle death well (indeed, I chose to skip my grandmother’s out-of-state funeral later), and I didn’t attend – choosing to go to my own youth group instead (volleyball with the local Catholic church group).  I still regret this decision.

Ultimately I went on to attend the Synod meeting, which continued my heavy involvement in the church.  In June, the presbytery meeting was held at my church and I attended in order to see the report of the YAD who went to General Assembly, and to prepare for my attendance at Synod in June.  (Ironically, during that meeting I ended up having dinner at the table of the General Assembly Moderator.)  Also during the meeting there was a report from the presbytery folks about youth programs.  Pictures of the retreat to choose YADs were shown, including some of me and some of Jessica.  And one of me and Jessica, with her wearing a silly hat that I brought to the retreat that looked like a bear’s head.  I still have that hat.

Sometimes I wonder what would have happened if I’d called sooner.  Jessica was pretty clearly on a seminary/ministry trajectory.  She planned to attend Rutgers that fall; at the time I did not know that I would start at Rutgers a year later.

About a year later when I was at Rutgers I met another member of the Ridgewood High School class of 1985.  She showed me her yearbook, and the page tribute to Jessica.  This friend from my floor at Rutgers ultimately introduced me to my wife Carolyn, right about the time that I saw the yearbook.

For a long time, every January 22nd I would remember and say a prayer for Jessica.  As the years have gone by I have forgotten a time or two.  But I’ve never forgotten her.  And to a tiny degree, she is a part of my faith journey that has led me to seminary.

Be at peace, Jessica.  You are not forgotten.