‘They died loving each other,’ Coast pastor wants three drowned teens remembered for act of love
The pastor who is giving eulogies this weekend for three young boys who drowned in the Biloxi River says nothing could have prepared her for this dark time.
But she’s no stranger to the dark.
Lt. Sonya Smith is the pastor of Kroc Church at the Salvation Army in Biloxi, where 14-year-olds Travis Roberson, Javonte Johnson and Eric Smith attended.
Their deaths have left families, friends and a church community in mourning.
“No one ever told me this was one of the things I would have to walk through,” Smith said. “They don’t tell you that in training. They couldn’t prepare me for something like this.”
She’s walked through many trials and challenges throughout her life, and they are what help her minister to those suffering around her.
Smith grew up in the New York Bronx, where she was one of eight children. Her mother was her hero and a pillar of strength. She laid the foundation for their family of finding God even in the hardest of times.
“She had me when she was 17,” Smith said. “I always saw her as a superwoman. Even in times that we struggled financially, when our lights were out, when we had no heat in our house, my mom always made a way. She taught us how to be joyful even in the midst of hard times and our struggles.”
Her mother made sure that Smith and her siblings had a strong, Christian faith. They were at church two to three times a week.
“My mom always said ‘Trust the Lord Sonya, trust the Lord. She has that instilled in me from the beginning.”
‘My life changed’
Later on in life, Smith married her high-school sweetheart, and at the young age of 22 she was seven months pregnant with their first child.
“I was a baby having a baby,” Smith said. “We lived in a really tough environment. My husband wasn’t the perfect person. He was selling drugs, we were in a place that was infested with drug dealers. He then got caught up in a situation.”
One night changed Smith’s life — when she was told her husband had been murdered.
“I had to face the reality very quickly that I was a single mother and a widow in one moment,” Smith said. “My life changed. I met him when I was 15 years old. We planned to spend the rest of our lives together.”
“I was angry with God for a very long time. I went from grief to anger. I asked him, ‘How could you allow something like this to happen?’ How was I going to explain to my daughter, his unborn child, what happened?”
Smith said that anger festered for years. For a decade that pain caused her to turn away from her faith and to sin and abusive relationships.
Coming back to God
Smith eventually remarried, but it was an abusive marriage. They had a contract with the South Atlanta Kroc Center where she would clean for the church.
“I would clean the building and pray then go home and be abused.” Smith said. “I was talked to like a dog. He would often use his hands on me. I’d just come back and clean the church. I decided to start attending the church and became a youth pastor.”
There was one woman at the church that “saw” Smith differently than everyone else. Captain Sandra Pawar asked Smith to lead a group of women who were coming out of sex trafficking.
“I thought ‘that’s crazy,’ she has no idea what I’m going through,’” Smith said. “I wasn’t sure at first, but I felt like I could help people despite my situation. Ministering them and talking with them, we were like one. I started to see my purpose.”
Smith said one day she was sitting in her office and Pawar came in and said, “Your walk is not authentic.” She wanted to be angry and yell, but instead cried.
“She told me ‘You come to church one way, but go home to another situation.’ I asked her how did she know that and kept crying. She told me, ‘I once was you. I don’t know how, but God’s going to make a way for you.’”
Months later, Smith visited India where she was able to minister to women. She met a woman who became a prostitute to support herself after her husband was murdered.
“God used me to minister to her,” Smith said. “That’s when I knew God was going to get me out of my situation.”
When she got back to the states, her marriage continued to fall apart. Her godmother finally took her down to the courthouse to file for a divorce. Then, she filled out paperwork to become an officer for the Salvation Army.
“The Lord never left me during that time,” Smith said.
Sonya began training in 2015 and was commissioned in 2017 as a Salvation Army officer, completely dedicating her life to Christ and a group of people she holds close to her heart: the youth.
“My love of people comes from the depths of brokenness that I’ve been through,” Smith said. “I was a young girl. I suffered abuse, I’ve known tragedy. When I see people going through something, I often see where I’ve come from. People heard me and helped me. In turn, I wanted to give back.”
‘We are changed’
Smith said that the members of her congregation are more than just people who attend the church.
“My congregation is my family,” Smith said. “I don’t just see them on Sunday nights. I see them in my heart and I pray for them. I care for them. I love them. If they’re broken, I’m broken. If they’re joyful, I’m joyful.”
She said one of the most important things to do when someone is suffering loss is just to be present and to listen.
On Saturday and Sunday, Smith will honor the memories of the three best friends who died trying to save each other.
“We could think about them drowning, but I’m choosing to focus on who they were and what they did to save each other,” Smith said. “They lived loving each other, and they died loving each other. I want to be like that. I want to love harder.”
The church plans to have a mural painted of the three boys in the church’s new activity center across the street. Her oldest daughter will be the one to paint it.
Smith said they will reveal finished piece to the boys’ mothers to show how much the church loved their sons.
“When you think about these boys, you’re only going to think about love, heroic, men of valor. They lived scripture, they laid down their lives for each other. We are changed. How could we not be?”