Andy and Nikki Bray often told their eldest daughter, Natasha, that God was going to use her in mighty ways to impact the world and make a difference. It turns out they were right, but in a way much different from what they’d envisioned.
Natasha Bray, 16, was one of seven individuals from Elim Christian College in New Zealand who were swept down the Mangatepopo River on April 15, 2008. They were caught in a flash flood while exploring the river as part of an outdoor education course. As the eyes of the country are turning to this small Christian community that lost a teacher and six students of incredible character and spiritual maturity, they are seeing how God used these young people to make the world a better place, and how God is working in the lives of their families to increase their faith in this difficult time.
The Bray family
At press conferences and interviews following the tragedy, Andy Bray, director of FamilyLife in New Zealand, boldly shared with the media how he and his family are coping with Natasha’s death.
“Life is full of difficulties,” Andy explained to a room full of reporters and cameras the day after the accident. “I’m just so glad I know how to handle these things and where I can take my grief. I’m thankful that my belief is that Natasha is in a much better place.”
For those who ask if this has been a test to his faith, Andy responds, “It absolutely does test my faith in God. Of course it does. Doubt is a part of faith. Without doubt, you don’t have faith. So sure, we’re saying to God, ‘Why has this happened? Where does this fit into Your plan?’ And I don’t have an answer for that. But I do have a place to go in my heart and I can trust that we’re going to get through this. Not only that, but my other two kids are going to be so much stronger.”
Although this is the most difficult trial the Bray family has gone through together, it’s not the first by any means. Andy lost all kidney function in his early 20s and went on dialysis. At that point, the doctor told him he would never have children. That changed when, 10 years later, Andy was given a kidney transplant. The transplant meant he no longer had to go on the kidney machine every two days for eight hours at a time; and most importantly, it meant he and Nikki could have children.
“From the very beginning, we knew that God had given us a special gift,” says Nikki. “Natasha was our miracle child, born on Father’s Day.”
Andy and Nikki were even able to have two more children after Natasha. But the hard times weren’t over: Andy got cancer, and although he beat it, he lost his transplant in the process, forcing him to go back on dialysis. A few years later, he had a stroke. With his health frequently unstable and the future uncertain, Andy and Nikki have taught their children that life is short, and that they should appreciate every moment they have together.
According to Andy and Nikki, that’s one reason why Natasha placed such a high value on others and on life. “We think that with Andy having to undergo regular dialysis on a kidney machine at home, each of our children has learned to value the preciousness of life and people,” Nikki says.
Natasha wrote on her MySpace profile, “I love my family. We have been through so many trials together and have pulled through them because we have God and each other. We will be together forever, no matter what awaits us in the future.”
Natasha lived out her values by frequently telling her parents how much she loved and appreciated them, and by refusing to gossip or speak badly of others. She also wrote notes of encouragement to her friends and siblings.
“I know those things are pretty unusual for a 16-year-old,” Andy says. “So we have lots to hang on to.”
Andy and Nikki are already seeing ways that Natasha’s positive influence changed others.
“One father came up to me after Natasha’s funeral,” Andy says. “He told me, ‘I’m going to hug my kids more often and write more encouraging notes.’ If that seed alone has been planted in the hearts of the 1,700 people who attended, and beyond, then her legacy is already extraordinary.”
In fact, all of the students who were killed in the tragedy are leaving behind quite a legacy. “There is nothing but admiration, respect, and fascination at the character and high standards of these children,”
Andy says. “At 16, Natasha wrote tributes to her parents, had never dated and never been kissed—that kind of stuff. Far from being cynical, the media is asking, ‘Does a child like that really exist?’ On their own they would have left a mark, but all seven together—it’s been huge! The world stopped for awhile and got a glimpse of how awesome a child of God can look.”
Natasha and her best friend Portia, another victim of the river tragedy, are also leaving behind a positive phrase that is sweeping the nation: “Jump in puddles.” The morning Natasha was preparing to leave for the outing, Andy asked her how she felt about the heavy rain and storm warning. Natasha replied, “Portia and I have a little saying—we’re going to jump in puddles. What that means is no matter what happens, we’re going to try to have a good time anyway.”
It sums up their perspective of life, and it’s now the philosophy that the Brays and other hurting families are adopting to help cope with their loss.
“Jump in puddles” has reappeared in countless newspapers, online articles, and TV and radio programs since that day. At a memorial service on May 10 at the TelstraClear Events Centre, the thousands of people who attended pinned on badges to proudly display the catchphrase in memory of Natasha and Portia, and as a demonstration that they are all trying to have the same optimism and hope.
The media has been largely impressed by the families’ declaration and strength of faith, lack of bitterness, and incredible sense of community. One prime-time TV journalist, a confessed non-believer, said on live radio, “Whatever it is they’re drinking, I want a sip of it.”
A columnist for the New Zealand Herald wrote in an editorial, “I don’t know how they do it, but surely the burden must be easier to bear if you are certain that your child has gone to a better place.” He went on to say, “The Elim community is a wonderful example of how much a gift of faith can be.”
The gift of sight
Many in New Zealand have been touched by this arduous turn of events. But one person in particular will see something good come of the tragedy—the gift of sight, through the donation of Natasha’s eyes.
In a farewell speech at Natasha’s funeral, Andy said, “When we have kids, we think our job is to teach them. Actually, now I think quite differently. The reason we have children is so they can teach us.”
Then, speaking to Natasha, Andy said, “I know what a difference you’ve made in my life. And even in your death, your life is being used to touch a nation.
“You wanted to give me one of your kidneys—you wanted to be a donor for me so I could live a much fuller life. But I wouldn’t allow it because you were so precious and I didn’t want you to put your life at risk. I know now that your eyes have been donated to give someone sight.
“I just hope they have your vision.”