CREWE — Four chairs in the front of the auditorium at Nottoway Middle School sat empty Thursday evening except for a black ribbon that adorned each.
The vacant seats at a near-capacity prayer vigil represented the four members of Shiloh Baptist Church in Blackstone who were killed in a crash Tuesday outside Mount Zion Baptist Church in Dinwiddie County, where they had planned to attend a revival.
“Rarely, rarely have I been as sad in my life as I was Tuesday night and yesterday morning,” Blackstone Mayor Billy Coleburn said at the vigil, which drew hundreds. “As sad as I am, I’m comforted by what I see tonight. ... Before they reached their destination, they reached a much better place. The people in that van, this is what they would have wanted to see in Nottoway County.”
The mayor added: “Tonight and this week, we are all Shiloh Baptist Church.”
The Rev. Benjamin Brown, the pastor of Shiloh Baptist, said several of the seven other van passengers who were injured had returned home to heal. He visited those still in the hospital Thursday and said at the vigil that they were all alert and in good spirits.
The crowd erupted into cheers at that news, as they did as representatives of each of the families of the victims who were killed or injured stood to be recognized.
The 11 church members were riding in a van on U.S. 460 on Tuesday evening when it was struck from behind by a truck as the van slowed to turn into Mount Zion’s parking lot, according to state police.
The four killed were:
- James Farley, 87, a former groundskeeper at Shiloh Baptist Church;
- Wartena Somerville, 36, an elementary school teacher and the mother of a young child;
- Delois Williams, 72, the leader of Shiloh’s deacon board; and
- Constance Wynn, 85, a former Lunenburg County school teacher who served as a town councilwoman in Blackstone from 1987 to 2010.
The injured van passengers were Tyree Ford, Grace Rhodes, Patricia Crawley and Cleola Vaughn, all of whom are deacons or deaconesses in the church; Francis Crawley, Rose Mary Jones and Shirley Clark.
Coleburn, who served on the Blackstone Town Council with Wynn, said he had no doubt that all four who died entered heaven through its promised Pearly Gates.
“She’d say: ‘I’m fine, and y’all are going to be, too,’ ” he said of Wynn.
Initially, the plan had been to hold the vigil outside Shiloh Baptist, but organizers decided it would be too hot outside. So the organizers, members of Spring Hill Baptist Church in Nottoway, opted instead to use the auditorium of the air-conditioned middle school, which can seat 736 people.
The Rev. Dr. Travis L.C. Warren, pastor of Spring Hill Baptist, led the service.
“We just pray God’s richest blessings upon you and thank God for you, for showing that you do care,” said Brown, Shiloh’s pastor, thanking vigil attendees for their support. “It’s good to know that you’re in a community where people love you.”
Brown said he was passing through Blackstone for the first time when he felt called to serve as pastor of the church.
“Now I know why,” he said.
His wife, Polly Brown, stood by his side as Brown was overcome with emotion before reading the names of those who died in the crash. She said they have been overwhelmed, not only with the grief of loss, but by the blessings of kindness that have poured in since the tragedy.
“How do we repay so many people for so many things that you all have done,” Polly Brown said. “The only thing that came to mind is that we could repay you with love. To the Shiloh Baptist Church family: We will get through this together.”
As the vigil ended, the crowd held hands, swayed and sang in unison a hymn that spoke to the sentiment of the evening: “I need you. You need me. We’re all a part of God’s body. I need you to survive.”
Well-wishers gathered around the families that had lost loved ones. Others hugged in the parking lot.
L. Daniel King, who coaches baseball at the middle school, said the act of coming together is too often tied to tragedy.
“Don’t let this be it,” King said. “One time isn’t enough.”