Their seats on the front row at church were empty Sunday morning; their friends saw to that.
Javonté Johnson, Eric Smith Jr. and Travis Roberson Jr., all 14, lost their lives Thursday, drowning in the Biloxi River. They left behind not only their families but also three other boys who were their spiritual brothers.
Every Sunday, the six teenagers sat together at the Salvation Army’s Kroc Church in Biloxi. The three teens who did not make it to the river taped their deceased friends names on the backs of their chairs so nobody would sit in them for Sunday’s service.
“The kids did this right when they got here,” said Lt. Sonya Smith, the church pastor. She loved the boys and watched them grow as Christians.
She told the congregation: “The passing of our beautiful brothers has really rocked our community, our church, the families . . . but Satan did not win. Our brothers finished well.”
All the teens grew up together in Pelican Landing, formerly Crown Hill, in Gulfport. One in their group, Jorden Cofey, invited them to church a couple of years ago.
His mom told the boys if they wanted to spend the night with Jorden on Saturdays, they would have to go to Kroc Church the next morning.
So they all started going to church together. And they loved it. Javonté had recently become a “soldier” in the church, completing eight weeks of intensive religious training.
“They were so thirsty for a change in their life,” Smith said. “They didn’t know exactly what that changed looked like in their life, but they wanted something different. They wanted something better.”
I reminded their parents, “ ‘You did well because these boys listened.’ ” Each one of them, she said, was different.
Eric was a comedian. He could always make you laugh. Travis was the leader. He held everyone together. Javonté was always smiling, always seeking answers to the big questions in life.
They were big brothers to the children in their neighborhood and to the children at church, many of whom cried at the altar after Sunday service.
Smith will be delivering their eulogies at funerals next weekend. She wants to do her best for them.
She keeps thinking about what they would tell her: “I literally could hear them in my head saying to me, ‘Look, you told us about Jesus. You’re good.’
She remembers what they she told them and what they would be telling her today.
“I can hear them saying, ‘Quitters never win and winners never quit. Finish strong,’ ” she said.
“And they finished strong . . . They made it to heaven before we did.”