Pastor: Crash brings out the best in people

By Joe Isenhower Jr.

Although a New Year’s Eve van crash in North Carolina took the life of a basketball player at a Centereach, N.Y., Lutheran school and injured others, its aftermath has “brought out the best in people,” says the team’s coach and pastor of its sponsoring congregation.

Kevin Mormin, a 17-year-old, 7-foot-2 center who was an exchange studencrasht from France, died and eight others were injured when the van taking them to a basketball tournament in Charlotte left the road near Salisbury and flipped several times.  All but Mormin were thrown from the van.

The crash received wide media coverage, partly because the 15-passenger van carrying the boys basketball team members and supporters “has such a poor safety record,” according to a Jan. 5 Newsday story.

Rev. Ron Stelzer is pastor of Our Savior Lutheran Church and head basketball coach at its New American School in Centereach, on Long Island, where Mormin was a member of the nationally-ranked team.

“We have gotten so many phone calls and letters that have been encouraging, positive and sympathetic,” said Stelzer, who also said that members of Our Savior “have pulled together nicely.  All the indicators of the health and strength of the congregation have been up since this has happened.”

Stelzer drove one of two vans on its way to the tournament.  His 22-year-old daughter, Emily, an honors-level teacher at New American school, was driving the van that lost control.  She was later charged with two misdemeanor violations.

Four of the pastor’s children were among the eight injured.  His son, Peter, 14, was the only one still hospitalized when this Reporter went to press.

Lutherans and others reached out to the team and its supporters in North Carolina, according to Stelzer.

He said that just after the accident, Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Salisbury housed the team and its supporters from Long Island, and members of other area churches provided meals. 

Three critically-injured members of the team were airlifted to Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center in Winston-Salem.  Members of St. John’s Lutheran Church there visited them and invited Stelzer and others into their homes for meals. 

Stelzer said that a member of St. John’s who owns a chain of steak houses  provided “all the meals we wanted for at least a week.”

Our Savior, Centereach, held a prayer service two days after the accident.  LCMS Atlantic District President David Benke and Rev. Toby Joeckel, a former assistant pastor now in Yakima, Wash., participated in services there and spent time with members. 

Counselors were on hand at New American School.  Its principal, Dolores Reade, said that messages of condolence streamed in from the surrounding community and beyond.

“We have definitely seen the hand of God at work through this great outpouring of love,” Reade said.

Stelzer said that media coverage of the church and school “has given us a great platform to proclaim Jesus Christ and demonstrate how He makes a difference in people’s lives when they go through these kinds of experiences.”

He said the basketball team has regular devotions and prays together, and is “very intentional about representing Jesus Christ on the court.”

The school held a memorial service for Mormin Jan. 12.  Among those attending were his mother, Michelle, and a brother, Greg, who had come to accompany the body back to France.

The weekend before, they also were guests at a previously scheduled basketball tournament in the New American School gym, during which there was a tribute to Kevin that included retiring his jersey number, 25. 

The Our Savior New American School team won that tournament.

Posted Jan. 30, 2004

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