SOUTH FULTON, Ga. - Behind rows of suitcases once bound for a youth missionary trip to Africa, and flanked by friends, family and South Fulton city officials, the mother of 17-year-old Sarah Harmening described her daughter, who only hours before died in a bus crash in the city of South Fulton.
"We asked to have the opportunity to speak because our daughter Sarah was a gift to us that was given on December 20, 1999. And she loved the Lord with a love that was tangible," Karen Harmening started. "I hope you will listen to it because it's what she lived and breathed for."
Visibly holding back a flood of emotion and standing beside her husband Scott, the Alabama mother explained why her daughter was headed to Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport Thursday afternoon.
"They were on the mission trip to Botswana," she said. "And she was so excited. She earned all the money to go and share Christ with children of Botswana."
Sarah was part of a youth group from Mount Zion Baptist Church in Huntsville, Alabama, which was on the first leg of its mission trip to Africa, a 3-hour trip to Atlanta's airport, when the church's bus tangled with two other vehicles, causing it to overturn.
Sarah's mother said her daughter was biding her time on the bus, writing one final journal entry. It was an entry her mother wanted to read aloud to those gathered in the sanctuary of the Kingdom of God Church late Thursday evening, so Sarah's "heart" could be shared with the world:
"'I was just sitting here on the bus feeling a little sad. I guess because I'm going to be gone so long and I was a little uncomfortable. Then I decided to read my Bible. I prayed and opened up to 1 Peter 5 and 2 Peter 1. Pretty much everything I read applied to me now. It talked about watching over the flock entrusted to you which would be my little buddies in Botswana.'"
"She said that she was also called to humble herself. 'Which I will need to do and that also means being a little uncomfortable. It talked about the devil prowling about like a lion seeking whom he may devour which he will especially be doing on this mission trip. And now it is our mission trip. And how we will need to be alert and of sober mind. And lastly, how we will get to participate in His Divine Nature! I mean how awesome is that?' is what she says."
"'So mostly, I was just reminded of why I am here and that God has called me here and His has done this for a reason. So, I know He's going to do incredible things.'"
Giving little pause in her speaking, Sarah's mother seemly picked up her daughter's mission in her next heartfelt words.
"And we were out there talking and praying. And we know that the incredible thing is impacting the world for Jesus Christ and we want you to know the love of Jesus Christ. And if you do not know Him as Savior and Lord, for our precious, precious Sarah please seek Him for today for his Word," she said fighting back tears.
Sarah's sisters, Katelyn, Kristen, and Sophie then came forward to share one last text message. Katelyn said she received the scripture 1 Peter 5:23-25 followed by Sarah's thoughts.
"'This is such a great reminder. We are like a wisp of smoke. We are only here for a moment and this not about us, life is not about us, it's about God who is eternal. So, I want to dedicate the one moment I am here, completely and entirely to Him,'" Katelyn read.
The Kingdom of God Church on Welcome All Road since the crash has become part clearinghouse, part home away from home, but mostly a comfort to the families and victims of the church bus crash.
Officials with the young city of South Fulton said it was not a task they wanted, but a challenge they were willing to step up to complete.
"There is no greater love that you can find in this city and Fulton County. That we know how to come together, we know how to care, and we know how to love and we know how to help folks get to the next journey in life," said Pastor Warren L. Henry Sr., South Fulton chaplain.
"There's no words that can be said at this time to truly make people feel good. I can say this, and I want to thank so many people. We've been a city now for less than two months, but I saw what we can do when challenges come," said South Fulton Mayor Bill Edwards.
Among those Mayor Edwards thanked was the Atlanta Chapter of the Red Cross which set up shop at the church, offering free meals to the families, working to return luggage, and helping families get to the five different hospitals where the 35 other people aboard the bus were taken after the crash.
Edwards said the city is handling the investigation into the crash, but could not immediately release any details. A report would likely be ready Friday morning, he added.
"I think this day on, the city of South Fulton and the city of Huntsville will be joined," said Edwards, who ended the press conference by calling on the city to join him in prayer for the families and victims.