SWEETWATER, Tenn. – Church members are sharing grief, love and concern for the 12-year-old girl who lost her mother during a youth trip to Gatlinburg for Holston’s annual spiritual event known as “Resurrection.”
Courtney Gray, age 37, died in a hot tub in a vacation rental house on Saturday, Jan. 24. She was a member of First United Methodist Church of Sweetwater, serving as an adult chaperone for the church youth group which included her daughter, Emily.
“It has been a very traumatic thing for our church,” said the Rev. Michael Hubble, pastor at First UMC of Sweetwater. “I can’t say enough about our youth and adults and how well they handled it.”
The loss was a first for Resurrection, celebrating its 30th anniversary with a total attendance of 11,040 on Jan. 16-18 and Jan. 23-25 at Gatlinburg Convention Center.
“I am aware there have been deaths of family members back home, and folks either not able to attend at all, or having to leave early,” said the Rev. Don Thomas, a founder of the winter spiritual retreat. “This is the first incident of a counselor with an attending group.”
A group of 41 people, including 33 youth, traveled from Sweetwater to Gatlinburg and had attended the Friday evening and Saturday morning worship services at Resurrection. On Saturday afternoon, most of the participants were on an outing when the death occurred at their rental cabin, according to Crystal Ragan, youth ministry director.
Ragan said the morning worship message from speaker Reggie Dabbs – about a “gate called beautiful” – was perfectly timed.
”What do you say to a group of 33 kids when something like this happens?” she said. “I feel like God used Reggie to speak to us to prepare our hearts and minds for what we would be facing.”
Resurrection leaders were “shocked and sad” when they heard the news of the loss, Thomas said. “Reggie dedicated the evening session to Courtney and Emily. He lifted our sadness into Resurrection joy.”
The group returned to Sweetwater on Saturday night, Hubble said. On Sunday night, a firefighter chaplain sent a trauma team to meet with the Sweetwater youth and parents -- and separately with Ragan and Gray’s daughter, Emily.
“It takes a village to raise a child,” Hubble said. “We promised Emily that we would be that village, that we would be there for her.”
Gray’s memorial service was held Jan. 27 at First Sweetwater UMC. “She was very humble, very thankful,” Ragan said. “She was a hard worker. She lived her life for Emily.”
Thomas attended the funeral. Resurrection’s design team and Reggie Dabbs sent flowers, which “meant a lot,” Hubble said.
The congregation established a fund to pay for the funeral expenses, Hubble said. Any additional gifts will be saved for Emily’s future.
The child now lives with her aunt, uncle and cousins, and the First Sweetwater congregation is mobilizing to add a room and make other home repairs, Ragan said.
After spending several days with Emily, Ragan said she recently had to return to her full-time job. Before she did, she asked Emily if there was anything she needed.
Emily replied, “Well, I might need a ride to youth on Sunday.”
To give to the special fund, write a check to “First Sweetwater UMC” with “Courtney Gray” on the memo line. Mail to: First UMC, 501 Church Street, Sweetwater, TN 37874.
Annette Spence is editor of The Call, the Holston Conference newsletter.