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Living Out the Tested Faith

The Mayer family senses God’s leading after the simultaneous deaths of three sisters.

The three Mayer sisters looked forward to participating in the wedding ceremony of their only brother, Joey. Joey’s fiancée, Bree O’Connor, seemed like a sister to Krista, 19, Nikki, 17, and Jessica, 12.

That Thursday, New Year’s Day 2004, the three sisters took off around 4 p.m. for a 125-mile drive to confer with Bree at dinner two days before the big event. Parents Joe and Debbie Mayer planned to make that drive to Willmar, Minnesota, from New Brighton on Friday.

When younger, all three daughters made commitments to follow Jesus as their Savior. They regularly invited non-Christian friends to youth group at Redeeming Love, an Assemblies of God church in Maplewood. All the girls had mercy on the lonely and outcast. For instance, Krista worked as a child-care provider, while Nikki cared for women with physical and mental disabilities.

Around 6 p.m. that Thursday, Nikki — who 18 months earlier served as matchmaker with Krista between her brother and Bree — called Bree from her cellphone to say she and her sisters would arrive at the restaurant in about half an hour. But by 8 the girls hadn’t shown up. Bree repeatedly tried calling Krista and Nikki’s cellphones, but couldn’t get an answer. Bree then phoned Debbie and Joe to ask if they had heard anything.

A concerned Joe tracked down the phone number of the Willmar hospital. The county coroner came on the line with devastating news.

All three daughters had been killed in a traffic crash.

Upon hearing the news Debbie ran out into the snow barefoot, her mind unable to process such a shock. As friends and family arrived to offer comfort, for an hour Debbie remained inconsolable, pacing outside and through the house. Then her eyes fixed on a bookshelf containing photos taken of the girls during their elementary school years.

“I felt great peace because I realized they had gained heaven,” recalls Debbie, 62.

Later that night, Debbie and Joe experienced further consolation when they surveyed their daughters’ bedrooms. Journals, poems, and song compositions revealed the depth of the girls’ commitment to the Lord.

Nikki attempted to pass on an unmarked curve on a dark unfamiliar two-lane road a mile east of Willmar. The Dodge Lancer sedan Nikki drove collided with a Plymouth Voyager minivan driven by 15-year-old Katelyn Schalmo, accompanied by her mother, Patricia, an uninjured front-seat passenger. Katelyn sustained only a broken ankle.

Joey and Bree decided to go through with the wedding, only two days after the wreck because they believed the sisters would have wanted it that way. Three bridesmaids’ spots were left vacant. Instead of a honeymoon, the couple helped with funeral preparations.

Four days after the wedding, 2,000 people attended the combined funeral. As he closed the service, Redeeming Love Church Pastor Mike D. Smith reiterated the reality of Philippians 1:21 to attendees.

“For those who are living for so many other things besides Christ, to die would be a loss,” Smith said. “Only when you live for Christ is it a gain to die.”

As he invited the assembled to make a public profession of faith, about 200 people, primarily teenagers who had known the girls in school, streamed to the altar, along with several relatives of the Mayers.

Joey, 35, felt called to ministry after the deaths of his sisters, but not until reaching his lowest point.

“The first three months I really wrestled with my faith,” says Joey, who had to identify his sisters’ remains for authorities. “I was angry at God.”

Joey says he shut down emotionally, putting thoughts of his younger siblings out of his mind.

“I tried to isolate, to push away from God,” Joey told PE News. “But Bree wouldn’t let me. She forced me to talk about my feelings.”

Not until his newlywed bride encouraged him to visit the grave sites and verbalize memories of his sisters did Joey start to recover. Subsequently, he returned to North Central University after transferring from the University of Minnesota. After he and Bree graduated from North Central, Joey became youth pastor at what is now Emmanuel Christian Center in Maple Grove.

Joey and Bree have been on staff at Canvas Church in Northfield, Minnesota, since it launched in 2011. Joey is communications director and Bree is worship director.

In a first time of sharing together, Joe, Debbie, and Joey publicly talked about their experiences in a tear-filled service at Canvas in May. The surviving family members believe they are well equipped to help others cope with tragedy.

Joey and Bree say they have learned that acknowledging others’ pain is preferable to merely blurting out platitudes about God’s sovereignty. Bree, who has an older brother and a younger brother, says enduring the aftermath of the deaths helped her cope with seven years of infertility after her wedding. Joey and Bree now have a 5-year-old daughter, Vivien.

Despite the pain and stress of a Job-like loss and an instant empty nest, Joe and Debbie say the disaster resulted in a stronger commitment to each other and to the Lord.

“I’m not in a place of living angry at God,” Debbie says. “I get over being mad when I quickly express it out loud.”

“Joe and Debbie are able to show that God really does heal broken hearts,” Smith says. “They have a platform to share the powerful love of God.”

Debbie says they have been able to help others with losses — health, finances, relationships — because of the intense heartache they endured.

“Our grief is a perfect opportunity for God to refine us,” says Debbie, who has written the book After the Crash: Grieving with Hope in Light of Eternity.

“I am sad quite often, because I really miss my girls,” says Joe, 62. “But at the same time, I have a supernatural anticipation and grace that God has placed within us to go on.”

Joe, a certified commercial heating and air conditioning tester, points out that everyone’s days are numbered in God’s Book. While it may not seem fair that some lives are so short, life on earth isn’t the end for those who put their faith in Jesus, he declares.

“It’s more important to trust in the Lord than to try to understand His purposes,” Joe says. “Jesus told us in this world we would have trouble, but also that we will overcome. Overcoming isn’t about changing our circumstances; it’s about changing our perspective.”

IMAGE - The Mayer family today (from left) includes Debbie, Joe, Vivien, Joey, and Bree.

John W. Kennedy

John W. Kennedy served as news editor of AG News from its inception in 2014 until retiring in 2023. He previously spent 15 years as news editor of the Pentecostal Evangel and seven years as news editor at Christianity Today.