“No greater love is there than this: to lay down one’s life for a friend.”
This post is so hard for me to write because it has to do with one of my closest college friends, and his death this past Saturday. I met Ben (his real name is Brian Bergkamp, but he introduced himself to our friends as Ben so that’s what we always called him) my freshman year. Our group of friends was inseparable. The guys would go to daily night Mass with us girls and then come hang out in our dorm talking and laughing until the very last second of visitation hours, running out of the dorm before midnight hit.
When Ben decided to enter seminary at the end of freshman year, he wrote letters to our group of friends with all sorts of memories we had made together and hid them in bottles all over campus, leaving us clues to decode in order to find them. For the past several years, I’ve seen Facebook updates and talked to him here and there by letters, getting the updates on seminarian life and sharing my excitement with him for the day he’d be ordained a priest.
Then last Saturday, I got a text from one of my friends who grew up in the same town as Ben, telling us that Ben had gone kayaking that morning with a group of people on the Arkansas River and after hitting a rough patch of water, the kayaks all capsized. Ben and most of the others were able to get to shore, but one girl was being pulled under by the current, so Ben got back into his kayak, made it over to her, gave her his life jacket, and pushed her to shore before going under himself without the support of a life jacket. That’s the last time anyone saw him. He’s been missing ever since, with the rescue effort turning into a recovery effort to find his body after horribly long hours had passed.
I’m still not over the initial shock and grief of losing such an incredible friend and influence in my life. But I also feel like I’m just beginning to realize the ramifications of the way Ben both lived and died. He may not have made it to ordination day to become a priest, but by giving his life for another he lived out Jesus’ own priesthood of being both victim and priest, willingly giving Himself.
Right after finding out the news, I was scheduled to sing for Mass. Somehow, by the grace of God, I made it through and tried to hold myself together until it was over, but the Gospel hit me like a ton of bricks — the Good Samaritan.
The last conversation I ever had with Ben was on my birthday this past week; he told me he wouldn’t be spending the Fourth of July with his family because he’s spending the summer volunteering with other seminarians at the Lord’s Diner, a soup kitchen that feeds about 2,500 people a day, including those delivered by food trucks. He lived just as he died, putting another person’s life before his own, giving his life just as Jesus did.
In Adoration the day after Ben’s death, I read this in the first letter of John: “Little children, let us not love in word or speech but in deed and in truth.” How many times have I prayed and asked God to show me how to love, and then turned around and treated the people around me poorly, especially my family? Ben has taught me that it’s our actions that ultimately count, not our good intentions. It’s easy to love people theoretically, but when it comes down to it we need to put other people before ourselves in all circumstances. Ben is a true hero, not only because he died saving someone, but because he lived for others.
I know it’ll be a long road to healing for his family, brother seminarians, and all of us who were so blessed to know him. But there is such a peace knowing that he died serving God in such a beautifully concrete way. Another passage I read in Adoration has given me so much strength to face the hurt in my heart: “God Himself will be with them; he will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away” (Rev. 21:3b-4).
“Who is my neighbor?” Everyone. Go and love the people around you, not just strangers but your family members, friends, and the people you see every day. Don’t just pass through life; give of yourself and live for others. As I learned from Ben’s witness, that’s what makes you truly alive.
Ben, thank you for giving your life. Please pray for us and help us to live in imitation of Jesus as you did.