It was 8:25 on Saturday morning. I was startled by a “ping” on my phone indicating that I had received an incoming message from someone on Facebook. The circular image on the upper right hand corner of my screen let me know that the incoming message was from a woman who had been a confirmation student in the first parish I served as a pastor, 25 years ago. Though we have stayed in touch over the years, our contact has been sporadic and brief. When I tapped her image to open the message, I found these words: “they found Jacob.”
I knew instantly what she meant: Jacob Wetterling had been found.
In the fall of 1989, 18 months before I was called to serve as a pastor in Brooten, Minn., Jacob, an 11-year-old boy, was kidnapped at gunpoint on a rural Minnesota road while riding his bike home with his brother and a friend. He disappeared without a trace. The community in which Jacob lived was 50 miles away from my first call. The kids from my parish had been in St. Joseph, Jacob’s hometown, for a band competition on the day that Jacob was kidnapped. It could have been any one of them. It could have been any one of thousands of children for whom the open country was a place of joy, freedom, unrestrained play, and safety.
But all that changed when Jacob disappeared. An innocence was lost. A sense of dis-ease caused parents and kids alike to rethink the freedom with which children lived and explored — especially in the country. During the time that I served in Brooten, Jacob’s disappearance — and an enduring hope for his return — was a regular topic of conversation.
That was true for communities all over Minnesota. Jacob’s kidnapping sent shock waves through an entire state, and thousands upon thousands of people, year after year, kept hoping and praying that somehow he would be found and safely returned to his family.
On Saturday the world learned that such was not to be. Jacob’s body was found buried in a pasture about 25 miles away from where he was taken, 25 miles away from that first place I served as a pastor, 25 miles away from where those kids-now-adults talked in confirmation class about the way that Jacob’s kidnapping had changed their lives.
We all have stories in our lives that mark us, shape us, change us, stories written with on indelible ink on the fabric of who we are. The kidnapping of Jacob Wetterling is one such story for me. I remember it like it was yesterday. I remember the fear still present in that first community I served as they wondered about the safety and the security of their own children. I remember thinking with thousands upon thousands of others that somebody knows something, and all it would take would be one person to speak up and speak out.
But amid all of the disbelief, fear, and other complicated emotions that surrounded the hearts of so many with Jacob’s kidnapping, there is something else I remember as well: Jacob’s mother, Patty Wetterling.
Almost immediately after Jacob was kidnapped, Patty became the face of an enduring hope. Patty and the rest of her family urged people in Minnesota everywhere to turn their porch lights on so that Jacob — and any other missing children — would be able to find their way home. Patty chose hope over despair, hope over bitterness, light over darkness.
People responded by the thousands. Porch lights went on everywhere. People rolled up their sleeves and not only continued to search for Jacob but began to work to both enact and change laws for the protection of children. Because of Patty’s work and those who joined her, sex offender registries are now common realities in communities everywhere. Cases of missing children are treated completely differently by law enforcement than they were before Jacob. Parents of missing children have resources that they never before had, and because of Patty’s tireless work and those who picked up Jacob’s cause, most missing children are returned safely home.
Out of the Wetterlings’ darkest hours, light has shined brightly for countless others.
Hope over despair. Hope over bitterness. Light over darkness.
In the Christian faith we declare with conviction and with certainty that through Jesus, the light shines in the darkness. Because of Jesus, the darkness has not, cannot, and will not overcome the light.
Whatever darkness we face, whatever darkness you face, the light of Jesus will shine into that darkness and transform it with God’s enduring grace, God’s enduring love.
Since Jacob’s body was found on the weekend, thousands upon thousands have once again joined together. Porch lights have been turned on in his memory and in solidarity with his family. In the freshly raw experience of grief, light shines in the darkness. #lightsonforjacob
My own reflections upon Jacob Wetterling and his family have stirred in me anew a renewed passion to seek ways to be the light in someone else’s darkness, a renewed passion to bring hope where there is despair, a renewed passion to choose hope over bitterness.
If we all chose to do that, what difference might it make? How might our corner of the world become a more humane place? How might individual lives become indelibly marked not by sorrow, but by love and light?
Hope over despair. Hope over bitterness. Light over darkness. #lightsonforjacob. Won’t you join me?
Sept. 7, 2016
Rev. James A. Wetzstein and Rev. Charlene M. Rachuy Cox serve as university pastors at Valpo and take turns writing weekly reflections.