When Erin Peterson's greatgrandmother died, she wrote about her death as being the "defining moment" of her own, young life.
"All my life, my family has told me to trust in God and believe that He had a plan for all of us, but not until that day did I actually believe it," wrote Erin on Nov. 14, 2006. "That day I had to let her go — and believe that she was going to a place where she would not feel any pain. It is almost as if, when she died, she left some of her strength with me."
Now, Erin's family will have to draw some of that strength from her as they cope with the nearly incomprehensible fact of her tragic death at age 18. The Virginia Tech freshman was slain, April 16, along with 31 others on her college campus.
But Monday afternoon at her funeral service at Mount Olive Baptist Church in Centreville, the Rev. Eugene Johnson chose to celebrate Erin's life, rather than mourn her passing. And the service was so moving and uplifting that even Earv Blythe, Virginia Tech's vice president for information and technology, was comforted.
"I came here to be supportive of [Erin's parents] Celeste and Grafton," he told the 1,200 people gathered for the service in the church sanctuary, fellowship hall and under a tent set up outside. "But being at this church has done more to restore me."
Indeed, at the start of the proceedings, Johnson told the crowd, "The feelings we're sharing have an element of sadness for one who's no longer with us who was so vivacious, beautiful and spirited. But there's also an element of celebration of her life, [and that's] what Erin would have wanted."
"Cry if you want, but you're going to be crying through the praise of God," he continued. "We're going to worship Him for her life, her legacy and what she's done to impact other people."
Besides Erin's family, those attending included her friends from college and high school; members of Westfield High's girls' basketball team dressed in their uniforms; Westfield's principal, lead assistant principal and student activities director; two members of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors and the mayor of Leesburg.
Viewing immediately preceded the funeral and, as people somberly passed by the open casket, the mass choir — many of its members wearing Virginia Tech orange — sang the words, "Open up the gates of heaven; let it rain." Then the casket was closed and, as several people in the church sobbed softly, a large arrangement of white flowers was placed on top.
"The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away," said Johnson. "Blessed be the name of the Lord."
Photos of Erin adorned the program titled, "A Celebration of an Inspired Life." And inside were the facts of her life: She graduated from the Appletree private school and Merritt Academy prior to attending Westfield High. There, she was a member of the National Honor Society and the girls' varsity basketball team. Wearing the number 45, she captained the team as a senior.
But there was so much more to Erin. As the service continued, it was evident how much she'd meant to all who knew her. And Johnson and the Mount Olive family gave her a joyous sendoff reflecting all the happiness she'd brought to others.
The choir clapped and swayed, singing happy, upbeat songs. "I've got to get myself together, because I've got someplace to go," sang the members. "And I'm praying, when I get there, I'll see everyone I know."
Johnson said Erin appreciated modern gospel music, "so we want to capture the essence of her spirit, as well as the essence of her life."
Another pastor, the Rev. Harry Pilson of Mount Pleasant Baptist Church in Alexandria, said one comforting thing is that "Erin was saved. She wanted to go to heaven, and I believe she's already there — for Paul said, 'To be absent from the body is to be present with God.'" He then commended Erin into God's hands and asked for solace for her parents.
"It's very difficult to have an only child taken from you," said Howard. "But, God, teach them that she can't go to them, but they can go to her. And comfort her classmates, both here and at Virginia Tech. We praise God for Erin, who lived a life worthy of being called 'a child of God.'"
Church member Pat Wright then read several letters of condolences and said they were among "an enormous outpouring of love and support" that the Peterson family had received.
"Some things there are no words for — only shoulders to lean onto, hands to hold and hugs to comfort you," she read. "We might think the Lord has abandoned us when we are hurting, but that's when He draws closer to us. He doesn't ask us to understand, only to trust in Him."
The message from Wanda Lloyd and family said: "When you think of Erin, look up; she's looking at you, and she'll always be with you. We know that things will never be the same, but heaven has a new angel, and her name is Erin Peterson."
Pilson had baptized her and, in his condolence letter, he spoke of Erin's "quiet, peaceful spirit" and said she'd be deeply missed. "She extended herself in a manner that made us proud to claim her as one of us," wrote Pilson. "God will never leave or forsake you," he told her parents. "We will continue to pray that God will make you strong."
"There are absolutely no words that can be said that can diminish your pain," wrote the Revs. Sonia and Michael Oliver of the 3rd Baptist Church in Hampton, Va. "Our hearts, souls and spirits are hurting along with you. We may never understand a God who allows these things to happen ... but we must never let go of God's hand for a moment, or we will stumble and fall."
And from Johnson and Mount Olive came an entreaty to God to grant Erin's parents the courage to face her loss. "We pray that God will walk beside her," wrote Johnson. "A joyous welcome awaits her [in heaven]."
To the church, he said: "She's risen above it all, and she has brought us together here today because she touched all our lives. And that bespeaks of her character and personality that touched many different segments of the community."
Then members of those various segments spoke. Westfield High Principal Tim Thomas said Erin was a model student and a "true Bulldog," Westfield's mascot — tenacious and committed on the basketball court, and gentle, sweet, loyal and compassionate off the court. "Excellence in all endeavors is our mission at Westfield, and Erin is the epitome of that," he said.
Out of 3,000 Westfield students, just Erin and one other were selected for an internship with Rolls Royce. Thomas said they were chosen for their leadership, scholarship and personality, and "Erin represented us well, as I knew she would."
Supervisor Michael R. Frey (R-Sully) said four of the saddest words are "what might have been." Said Frey: "That's what could be said of the 32 people who had so much in front of them."
Calling Erin a talented student and gifted athlete who represented her community so well, Frey said, "It would be appropriate for us, as a community, to rededicate ourselves to being the best we can. God blessed us with Erin for too short a time, but how blessed that time was."
Supervisor Cathy Hudgins (D-Hunter Mill) said Erin was "an example for us. She had a lot to give and knew how to be a friend and a vivacious person."
Leesburg Mayor Kristen Umstattd didn't explain her connection to the Peterson family, but it was obviously very close. Crying, she said, "When Erin Peterson was born, her family rejoiced that such a beautiful person came into their lives. She was raised in love [and] every moment of her life had meaning." In high school, said Umstattd, Erin's basketball coach called her the team's spiritual leader.
"Her parents worked so hard so their little girl could go to college, and she never let them down," said Umstattd. In a world filled with so much competition and bitterness, she said, Erin's joy and compassion shone like a beacon of light. Said Umstattd: "Now that Erin's with the Lord, she knows why her family was so proud of her — and that the Lord has been proud of her, too."
Virginia Tech Vice President Earv Blythe said Erin came to the college already fulfilling its motto, "That I may serve." And Francie Donnell of the Merritt Academy said Erin's "spirit, kindness and joy for life remained the essence of her soul."
She also fondly recalled Erin trying to teach her eighth-grade classmates "to sing, sway and clap, all at the same time," like the choir at Mount Olive. Said Donnell: "She suggested they not look at their feet, but just close their eyes and feel the rhythm."
Last Monday, said Donnell, "Erin wasn't in the wrong place at the wrong time. She was exactly where she was supposed to be — in class and on time. It was evil that was the unwelcome visitor."
She said Erin "showed us every day is a gift and no one is guaranteed tomorrow. I pledge to her family that each of us will carry a piece of her within us always. To the Petersons, thank you for sharing your child with us; our lives are the better for it. Erin, you were always our beloved angel; now, you are an angel for the ages."
Erin's essay about her greatgrandmother was read aloud and now seemed especially prophetic. "Before she died, I had anxiety about trying new things," wrote Erin. "Her death made me want to live life to the fullest ... and made me realize life is too short. And it made me appreciate every moment I have with those I love."
In his eulogy, Rev. Johnson said, "Weeping endures for a night, but joy comes in the morning. I know that this will turn to good when we remember Erin's life. Evil did not win; Erin has risen above adversity. She lives in your hearts, your minds, your spirits, your words. And if we know she lives, death has no victory."