Krista Ramsey reports:
James Moore didn’t recognize his caller when his telephone rang on the morning of March 21, 2012, but he could hear the kindness in her voice.
She asked how he was doing and he assured her that he would be OK, an assurance easier to say than feel.
Five days before, as Moore was driving home from work, a car carrying five Lakota teenagers turned in front of him. There was no time to avoid a crash. The driver, 17-year-old Zeke Stepaniak, was killed and one of his passengers severely injured.
Although police said he was not at fault, Moore – the father of five, including two Lakota students – was reeling.
Two days after the accident, Moore called Zeke’s parents to express his sorrow and support. Now he was touched that a stranger had found his number and reached out to him. He asked her name. She said she was Debbie Stepaniak – Zeke’s grandmother. She had no idea Moore had already talked to her son.
“I said, ‘How are you?’ and my thoughts were, ‘I’m here. You can talk to me. But you’ve just lost your grandchild,’” he says.A phone call between strangers linked only by tragedy would surely be a strained conversation. This one was not. Tragedy hardens some people’s hearts. Others, it opens.
Moore and Stepaniak promised to pray for each other’s family. Then Moore asked about attending Zeke’s memorial service.
“She said, ‘You’re more than welcome. I want you to walk in with the family,’” Moore remembers. “I was like, what a phenomenal family, what a godly family.”
Then came the day of the service. What had seemed to Moore like the right thing to do now seemed daunting.
“I did think people could say, ‘Man, you killed someone. How can you be here?’ but I didn’t even give that room to grow,” Moore says. “What I had heard in the family’s voice when we talked was the concern and the compassion for us to get through this together.”
The Princeton Pike Church of God was overflowing with mourners, and for Moore and his wife, Victoria, there would be no quiet entrance. Ushers led them down the center aisle, Moore in a neck brace. At the front of the church, they were taken into a room where the family waited.
“People just started standing up – ‘James, how are you?’ – and I’m saying to myself, ‘Wow, Grandma, Dad, Mom, Grandpa,’ ” Moore says. “It was the warmest greeting I’ve ever received.”
Debbie Stepaniak had searched for Moore on the Internet and left messages for others with that name before reaching him on the phone. Now she watched her large extended family embrace him as well.
“We just hugged him and he hugged us,” she says. “You could feel his spirit and his sorrow.”
When the family moved to the sanctuary for the memorial service, the Moores walked with them and sat among them.
Days after losing a teenager to a most unexpected death, the Stepaniak family honored friendly, well-liked Zeke with a deeply spiritual and inclusive memorial service. At one point, nearly 200 teenagers came to the front of the church to make a commitment to God.
“That was God working – working through Zeke,” Moore says.
Nine months later, Moore passes the site of the accident twice each day, on his way to and from work. He speaks aloud to Zeke as he passes.
“I know Zeke’s watching,” he says. “Zeke sees that we’re carrying on.”
Zeke’s parents, Isaac and Detra Stepaniak of Liberty Township, say they pray for Moore and ask for God’s guidance in his life. “We don’t want him to carry any burden. We knew it was an accident. There’s no reason for anyone to carry that load,” Zeke’s father says.
Various memorials have sprung up to honor Ezekial Stepaniak, who was known for standing up for classmates who were bullied and, his mother remembers, “for giving anyone a second, third and fourth chance.” Still, the most lasting tribute may be the compassion shown by two families who used a tragedy to unite rather than divide them. His parents say it echoes a self-portrait the Lakota West junior drew not long before he died, titled, “We Evolve Every Day.”
“I felt that God wanted my wife and me to be at that memorial service, but then to hear Zeke’s family say, ‘You’re coming with us’ – that’s what got us through that whole ordeal,” Moore says. “We couldn’t choose what happened, but we could choose how we were going to get through it.”