By Linda C. Hoops
“We are committed to support this family, no matter what it takes.” These are the words of Rev. Donald C. Porter, pastor of Mount Calvary Evangelical Lutheran Church, Fort Wayne, Ind.
The family he is talking about is that of 3-year-old Laura Lynette VanNiekerk, who police believe was killed May 1 by her father, Johan VanNiekerk, in a motel in Battle Creek, Mich. Also found dead at the scene was Laura’s grandmother, Brenda VanNiekerk, 72.
Laura’s two sisters, Samantha, 11, and Olivia, 6, attend Unity Lutheran School, which is sponsored by Mount Calvary and Peace Lutheran Churches in Fort Wayne, although they are not members of either congregation. This is the first year the girls have attended the school.
“LuAnn Lebeau, the principal at Unity, called me on the Saturday morning after the bodies were discovered to come to the VanNiekerk’s apartment,” Porter said in an e-mail. “Donna (the mother) had no idea what to do about planning a funeral. After I offered to make the arrangements for her, she accepted willingly, very grateful not to have to worry about all the arrangements.”
Randy Keplinger, a member of Mount Calvary, donated the services of the funeral home. Other costs related to the funeral, such as the casket, grave site, and opening and closing of the grave, were paid by a person who wished to remain anonymous.
“In addition, people stepped forward to take the family on a shopping trip to purchase appropriate clothing for the family for the funeral,” Porter wrote.
The grandmother’s remains were cremated and sent to the residence of a son in Florida.
Principal LeBeau shared the ways faculty, staff, and students at Unity had supported the family, including giving them a portion of the profits from the school’s annual spring carnival, selling bracelets, and planning a benefit in June.
“We also set up a calendar so parents could sign up to bring evening meals to the family,” said LeBeau. “So far, we’ve got all their meals covered through the end of the school year.”
Special compassion has been shared with both first-grader Olivia and sixth-grader Samantha, who is also receiving academic support with LeBeau’s daughter in a study group.
LeBeau feels the sisters were blessed to be enrolled in a Lutheran school when the tragedy occurred.
“That’s the wonderful thing about our Lutheran schools, that this event did affect our whole school family with everybody reaching out with their prayers and love for this family. It’s been incredible.”
She also praised the Indiana District crisis team for providing informational sessions for teachers and parents on helping children deal with tragedies and for counseling the students.
Although information about the killings from court documents and police remains sparse, it appears that the “weapon” used in the killings was a drug overdose. Fort Wayne police say VanNiekerk, a native of South Africa who emigrated here, had recently separated from his wife and lost his job. Sometime on Friday, he left the area with his mother and daughter. Investigators have not determined whether he abducted his child and mother or whether they went with him willingly.
Police were able to locate VanNiekerk at the motel by tracking his cell phone use. He apparently had tried to also take his life and suffered minor injuries when police arrived on the scene. VanNiekerk, 41, is charged with two counts of open murder and one count of first-degree child abuse.
With the outpouring of support for the family from the community, Porter said there were many “unchurched” people who attended the funeral.
“I used the opportunity to ask the question many were asking themselves: ‘Why did this happen?’ Of course, that’s not the right question. That’s attempting to blame God for this tragedy. I explained how sin and evil came into the world through the fall of mankind, not through God. It was important to tell this story to the audience; it was a great witnessing opportunity,” Porter said.
“The support given to this family by our churches, school, and community says that we are not going to allow anyone to be isolated when a tragedy like this happens. We live in difficult times, and we are touched by evil. Nevertheless, we have a powerful weapon against evil, and that is Christ and His love. We will smother the VanNiekerk family with that love.”
Linda C. Hoops is a freelance writer and a member of Lutheran Church of the Resurrection, Sunset Hills, Mo.
Posted May 20, 2009