A Tragedy’s Miracle

The first time Allison McKinney heard of 15-year-old Sally Lewis, she saw her name scrawled in loopy teenage writing in a prayer journal passed around during a dinner McKinney was hosting for freshman girls: “Please pray for Sally,” a friend wrote. “Her sister died and she is having a hard time.”

McKinney was a brand-new volunteer leader with Young Life in Tyler, Texas, and the dinner was her introduction to her new Campaigner girls. Less than a month earlier, the 30-year-old wife, mother and business owner had attended her first Young Life club.

She’d never heard of Sally Lewis, who was a friend of the girls in her Campaigner group, but their simple request taught McKinney a powerful lesson: Be careful when you pray with your high school friends, because it might end up changing your life.

“Sally and I met the next week at club,” McKinney recalled. “We instantly bonded. We like a lot of the same things; we feed off each other well. We just got closer and closer.”

Sally’s parents, Michael and Robin Lewis, were praying, too. Just six months earlier, on March 3, 2008, the Lewis’ 20-year-old daughter, Lauren, died tragically in an automobile accident while driving back to college at Texas A&M. Sally’s heart had hardened toward God, and they worried they were losing her too.

“It’s a scary thing at 15, when life is confusing enough as it is, to have your world shattered to the core,” Michael Lewis said. “Sally was angry at God; she wondered if there even was a God. As a parent, you know this can go one way or the other.”

Wrestling with grief

After connecting with McKinney, Sally started coming to Campaigners every week. As she started to feel more comfortable, her grief poured out: how Lauren was just five days from her 21st birthday when she died; that she’d died the day after Sally turned 15 and had made her a green birthday cake while she was home. That she was always smiling, loved life and loved God; that she went to church and was passionate about serving others.

“I was extremely angry,” Sally said. “My family and I never expected this to happen to Lauren. All I could think of was, ‘God, why did you do this?’”

One night as the girls gathered for Bible study, McKinney shared the story of her stepfather dying when she was in high school. She told them she’d questioned God, that she’d been angry at Him and even hated Him.

“Then I told them that someone had said to me that He could handle that, that it was OK to be angry,” McKinney said. “That’s when Sally looked at me and said, ‘When do you stop hating God?’ And that became just kind of an open question. I think that was a turning point.”

Garrick Bailey, area director of Young Life Tyler, said McKinney’s acceptance and consistent love made the difference for Sally.

“I believe God heard the Lewises’ prayers and hand-picked Allison,” Bailey said. “Sally expressed disappointment and anger with God, and Allison didn’t try to fix that. She listened; she was a shoulder to cry on, and told her over and over, ‘It’s OK. It’s OK with me, and it’s certainly OK with God. So go ahead and shake your fist, but know I love you and God loves you infinitely more.’ Allison said it and, more importantly, she reinforced it with her life.”

Moving from darkness to light

In the summer of 2009, Tyler Young Life went to Frontier Ranch and McKinney took her freshman girls. For Sally, the experience was healing.

“Young Life camp was when I realized I shouldn’t be angry,” Sally said. “It was an eye opener. God works in mysterious ways, and I saw that I need God to get me through the journey instead of doing it on my own.”

Since camp, Bailey has watched McKinney and Sally’s relationship deepen to one of accountability and discipleship.

“Sally came away from Frontier with a desire for her life to look different,” Bailey said, “A lot of kids say they want their life to look different and six months later, they are back to the same old thing. That’s not been the case with Sally. She made a commitment, and she has held steady.”

Sally’s father calls McKinney an “angel” who helped move Sally from darkness to light.

“This person, this angel, came into Sally’s life at a time Sally needed someone who could understand and accept her anger and fear of who God is and what He’s up to,” Michael Lewis said. “I’m so grateful Sally confides in her. What they talk about, I don’t know. What I do know is Sally’s life is turning a corner. She has her personality back, she has her hope back, she has her faith back. God used Allison as a catalyst to bring her through.

“Our prayer for Sally was that she would find a group of people to provide spiritual direction for her, and Young Life is the community that helped her find her way. As a parent, how can you not be grateful for that?”

Hearts healed, lives changed

For McKinney, the ministry of Young Life brought her full circle in her own loss. She sees the redemption of her sorrow and has been blessed in ways she never imagined.

“I didn’t know why God put me through [the loss of my stepdad]. Everyone said it will make sense in time, which really made me mad,” she said. “But now I know it was so I can be here for Sally and other people who have gone through a great loss.

“It’s amazing how God puts people in your life to help you even when you think it’s just you helping them. I’ve gotten more out of Young Life as a leader than I ever expected to. These girls give me encouragement, faith, hope, joy. They trust me and that’s a great feeling.”

McKinney and Sally’s relationship is an example of the heart of Young Life, Bailey said.

“This story exemplifies what Young Life is and what every staff person and volunteer leader wants to be about,” he said. “This relationship isn’t about trying to get Sally to be a better person. It’s about standing in the gap for her and doing all we can to build bridges between kids and Christ. It’s a great picture of Young Life at its best.”

And for the Lewis family, Young Life is a reclamation — for life lost, a life saved and prayers answered.

“Young Life is more than one trip a year to the mountains,” Michael Lewis said. “It’s changing people’s lives day by day. It’s been our miracle in the midst of our tragedy.”