Joy and sorrow unfolding online

angel05It has been hard to know what to write about the news coverage of the mysterious and tragic case of the switched identities of Taylor University students Whitney Cerak and Laura VanRyn. On one level, the story was simply too close and too overwhelming. Please understand that my temporary office here at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities is, literally, next door to our organization's media team. Taylor University is a very active member of this global network of schools, and almost everyone who works here has friends and colleagues at that grief-stricken institution. So we were closely watching all the events that followed the original crash. Then came the revelation of the mistaken identities.

On one level, it is understandable that so many newspapers and networks downplayed the religious element of this story, other than mentioning that Taylor is an evangelical Protestant school. The story was so complex and confusing that it was hard to cover the basic facts and keep them straight and, of course, many questions remain unanswered. I guess the USA Today banner story is as good an example as any of the basic story template. It covered the details of what happened, then ended this way:

The Ceraks' joy was mixed with sympathy for the VanRyns. ... "Our families are supporting each other in prayer, and we thank our families, friends and communities for their prayers," the families' statement said.

In the cemetery where Laura's body was buried five weeks ago, the temporary nameplate that had marked the future spot of Whitney's headstone was removed Wednesday. It was unclear when Laura's casket would be exhumed and taken 175 miles south for burial near Grand Rapids.

On their blog Thursday, Laura's family cited Psalms 18: "In my distress I call to the Lord; I cry to my God for help. From his temple he heard my voice. ... He reached down from on high and took hold of me."

The family added: "This is our prayer this morning. God's Word is sufficient, no matter what your circumstance."

That article included input from the Detroit Free Press and, as several GetReligion readers noted in private emails, it was that newspaper's religion columnist who actually attempted to wade into this whirlpool of joy and grief. Columnist David Crumm recognized that this story was, in a very real sense, unfolding on the Internet and he went there to find what people were saying and feeling.

The starting point -- the place where the mistaken identity story first broke -- was at the website dedicated to Laura VanRyn and to her recovery. When the family discovered what had actually happened, the site told the emerging story of Whitney's recovery and the VanRyn family's efforts to cope with their confusion and grief.

Here is one posting from the site, as published in the Free Press:

Your testimony of Faith in our Lord Jesus Christ is the greatest honor you could bestow on Laura's life. Thank you for living the life, despite circumstances. Laura is looking down from heaven right now and is so proud of you all as is our Savior. You have inspired us all to walk the walk and not just talk the talk. Thank you for representing our Lord Jesus Christ and bringing glory to Him through this circumstance.

-- Anonymous

Crumm also noted that Taylor had opened an online forum to allow people to voice their prayers online -- leading directly to a column on that topic.

This tale of mistaken identities is a mystery, a medical thriller, a family drama -- but, at the heart of it for the families of Whitney Cerak and Laura VanRyn, it's a spiritual story of communities reaching around the globe to support them.

Prayer usually is invisible, but not in this case, thanks to a forum at an Internet site -- -- hosted by Taylor University, the evangelical Christian college in Indiana attended by the young women. Since the crash on April 26, more than 1,000 prayers have been posted.

vanryn cerakPeople from around the world have posted prayers at the site, including notes from Taylor alumni who have spread out in a network of ministry and work.

Crumm noted that people were clearly struggling to find some way to respond that recognized both the joy in one family and the sorrow in another. Counselors admitted that they did not know how they would handle this combination of emotions and the spiritual questions that would follow in their wake.

Milford funeral director and author Thomas Lynch said any spiritual counselor would find it difficult to help families sort out such a situation. "It's so perplexing," Lynch said. "One would be tempted to say there's a miracle that a lost daughter is alive, but does the other family then turn to the book of Job to learn about how bad suffering can get? This is very difficult all around."

Beth Miller, also an author and a United Methodist youth counselor in Ann Arbor, said, "What a confusing tragedy. It's like something by Shakespeare. "There's no simple theological answer to this one, except, I think, to say that this is a strong reminder of how powerfully our lives are all connected in a global community."

The story is not over, of course.

Newspapers in the Midwest are sure to follow Cerak's recovery and major networks will, I imagine, jockey to land the first interview with the girl who lived. There are a number of dramatic scenes in the lives of both families that will, like it or not, draw close media attention. What happens to insurance claims? The wrongful death lawsuits from the original crash?

And this past weekend, the family and friends of VanRyn gathered for a memorial service. The young woman's boyfriend stated what many were thinking:

At an emotional memorial service Sunday for VanRyn, 22, of Caledonia, her boyfriend, Aryn Linenger, poured his heart out again to 2,000 mourners. He said the bizarre identity switch that allowed those closest to VanRyn to believe they were tending to her in the hospital has made them feel they have been fooled by God.

"There's been many times in these past couple days where I've been mad at God, and I questioned how he could allow this to happen to me," said Linenger, 25, of Brighton. "Like it was the biggest trick he's ever played on me in my life."

I am sure that the weblog at Christianity Today will continue to follow this story. Please alert let us know if you see MSM articles that focus on the faith elements in the events that are ahead.

UPDATED: Sure enough, the CT weblog has posted a new collection of links for coverage of the Cerak-VanRyn story.

HCG0255 mnAlso, Phil de Haan -- the excellent media coordinator for Calvin College -- sent me the link to a Sunday column in the Grand Rapids Press by feature writer Charles Honey. Click here to read "Faith helps two families through times of mourning, rejoicing." Here is how that feature opens:

They are mere words on a page, but they touch like a soft hand on a parent's grieving shoulders.

"'For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways,' says the Lord."

It is the prophet Isaiah speaking to Jerusalem 2,700 years ago, and to Laura VanRyn's family today. The Bible passage was placed by VanRyn's family on her Web log May 6, a day they believed she was making great progress in recovering from an April 26 car accident. The blog reported VanRyn yawned and swallowed in a cute way, and wore pigtails.

Of course, hopeful progress was being made that day -- by Whitney Cerak.

While Whitney's family grieved her apparent death in that same accident, VanRyn's family surrounded Whitney with love and the word of God, unaware VanRyn already had died.

God's thoughts were not those of the VanRyn or Cerak families that day. But they believed God was with them. They still do ...

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