Searching for Haleigh, showing compassion

by Joni B. Hannigan/Florida Baptist Witness, posted Friday, February 20, 2009 (10 years ago)

PALATKA, Fla. (BP)--Just after he dropped his own kids off at school, Terry Wright got a riveting call Feb. 10 from the Putnam County Sheriff's Office where he serves as a chaplain in Palatka, Fla.

Haleigh Ann-Marie Cummings, 5, had disappeared, and through family connections to Dunn's Creek Baptist Church in San Mateo, Fla., where Wright is pastor, he and the church found themselves at the center of a massive hunt for the kindergartener.

Haleigh vanished from her mobile home in nearby Satsuma in the middle of the night, according to police who continue to treat the ongoing investigation as an abduction. Along with her brother, Junior, 4, she was in the care of her father's girlfriend, Misty Croslin, 17.

A week later, Wright was still holding on to hope, though bringing closure to the ground search -- which involved Florida Baptist disaster relief volunteers among others -- at a candlelight vigil Feb. 17.

Among them were Ronald Cummings, 25, the girl's father; Croslin; and Haleigh's mother, Crystal Sheffield, who lives in Glen St. Mary, Fla.

"Ronald was very upset," Wright told the Florida Baptist Witness newspaper the day after the prayer vigil and the first day there was no active ground search. "He begged EquuSearch to stay and I saw some of those guys crying and weeping, but there was just no child to be found."

Another Florida Baptist who joined the search was George Anthony, grandfather of 3-year-old Caylee Anthony, whose memorial service was held Feb. 10 at First Baptist Church in Orlando. Anthony and his wife Cindy are members of Eastside Baptist Church in Orlando. Caylee Anthony disappeared in June of last year. After six months of desperate searching, Caylee's body was discovered less than a mile from the Anthony home in Orlando.

With tears and prayers, family members were joined at the vigil by more than 400 people -- Haleigh's classmates, law enforcement officers and friends, and members of the press -- who heard Wright speak from 1 Peter about the "hope that is in Christ."

"We have a choice," Wright said of his words of encouragement. "We can choose to despair and to be discouraged" in looking at all of the statistical data which says the probability of finding the child is slim -- or else "we can believe that there's a God bigger than all the statistical trends and our God is able to do exceedingly above and beyond."

Wright described the vigil as a celebration of hope and an exercise of putting trust in God's character.

"God is always good even when people are bad," Wright said. Offering an invitation, even in a time of great duress, he said more than a dozen people responded by praying to receive Christ.

"We understand that salvation is a journey," Wright said. "Not everyone can receive the Gospel the minute they hear it."

Wright said the service was the culmination of an impromptu Bible study led by various members of his church each night where the workers were gathered while the search was ongoing.

And with the search involving law enforcement officers from throughout the state and experts in locating missing children from throughout the nation, Dunn's Creek Baptist and St. John's River Baptist Association churches joined with the community to provide support in tangible ways as well.

Hauling in tents, tables, food, ice and drinks, those in the rural and heavily wooded community about 25 miles west of St. Augustine made sure there was plenty to go around. Referring to residents of the area and his church as "caring and compassionate," Wright said, "We just love God and love people."

Florida Baptists mobilized trained volunteers through their disaster relief network for the search over the previous weekend.

Working through Asa Greear, director of missions for the St. John's River Association, volunteers from 10 churches mobilized on Saturday and five churches on Sunday.

Unlike a typical callout for a natural disaster or other event which requires a full response, a search for a missing child is coordinated directly through the sheriff's office or through the Federal Bureau of Investigation, said Fritz Wilson, director of the Florida Baptist Convention's disaster relief and recovery department.

Wilson said within 20 minutes of receiving a phone call requesting assistance, the convention used its automated calling system to contact all 150 trained volunteers in that particular association.

"In these types of responses, the investigators need willing volunteers that will take directions, search specific assigned areas in an organized manner and will not go off on their own," Wilson said.

Wilson, who has aided in these types of investigations in the past, said trained volunteers are the "eyes" of investigators and "understand the need to not touch anything that looks suspicious because of the criminal investigation that happens in an abduction."

In addition to aiding in the investigation, most disaster relief volunteers have been through spiritual care or "Barnabas" training, which Wilson said provides in-depth listening, grief processing and evangelism skills particularly for a crisis or disaster situation. And some are trained disaster chaplains as well.

"First and foremost, disaster relief volunteers are Christians who have a strong passion to serve folks in tough situations," Wilson said. Florida Baptist disaster relief teams also are currently responding in Paducah, Ky., in the wake of ice storms that paralyzed the region in late January.

Of the candlelight vigil and of hope, Wright said, yes, there is still hope Haleigh will be found.

"We are not sure what road God is leading us down," Wright said. "That road is seen clearly by God, it's known by God, and God is able to move us down it with peace and courage. We are not alone. We trust God's character.

"Pray for us, absolutely and sincerely," Wright urged. "We need the prayers of our brothers and sisters."

Haleigh has blond hair and brown eyes and is 3 feet tall. Please call the Putnam County Sheriff's Office at 386-329-0800 if you have any information regarding Haleigh Cummings.


Joni B. Hannigan is managing editor of the Florida Baptist Witness (www.foridabaptistwitness.com), newsjournal of the Florida Baptist Convention.

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