I attended a funeral service last Saturday morning. I didn’t know the deceased or his family, although I know one of his very close friends. Robert W. Collins was eulogized, mourned, honored, and remembered at Fayetteville’s New Hope Baptist Church, possibly the only church in the county large enough to hold the massive crowd gathered for the service.
First Lieutenant Robert Collins, a 2004 graduate of Sandy Creek High School and a 2008 graduate of the United State Military Academy at West Point, was killed in Iraq on April 7.
Civilians, veterans, police and fire personnel, and military personnel all came to pay respects and to stand with a mom and dad, both retired military officers, and with a grieving childhood sweetheart who were all suffering intolerable grief.
The Thursday prior to the service, Lt. Collins was welcomed home as his body was flown into Falcon Field in Peachtree City. There, a large crowd quietly gathered to salute or place hands over hearts as the flag-draped casket was gently and respectfully loaded into a waiting hearse.
Dozens of police cars and scores of motorcycles ridden by members of the Patriot Guard escorted Lt. Collins and his family to the funeral home in Tyrone. Hundreds of ordinary citizens lined the road holding flags and offering silent support.
Sadly, a Westboro Baptist Church news release indicated that members of the “church” would be protesting at Lt. Collins memorial service. Westboro claims that the deaths of American troops in Iraq and Afghanistan are divine retribution for America’s tolerance of homosexuality. The Patriot Guard was there in case they made good their threat.
The Patriot Guard was initially formed to shelter and protect the funerals from this very “church.” The Patriot Guard positions itself to physically shield the mourners from the presence of the Westboro protesters by blocking the protesters from view with their motorcade, or by having members hold American flags. The group also drowns out the protesters’ chants by singing patriotic songs or by revving motorcycle engines.
Several members of the local Marine Corps League detachment, including myself, came to the service to take our place outside in the line with the Patriot Guard. For whatever reason — perhaps due to answered prayers — the Westboro group failed to show, so the MCL members attended the service and sat with members of the Veterans of Foreign Wars and members of the American Legion.
Songs were sung, two United Methodist pastors spoke (Collins’ family are members at Hopewell UMC), an Army chaplain shared, prayers were offered, and a touching video tribute featuring photos of Lt. Collins was presented.
A brigadier general was on hand to read a statement from the Army command and to present gold stars to Lt. Collins’ mother and fiance. She also read a citation and presented a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart to Collins’ father.
For my part, and to my surprise, I cried — something I have learned, in 35 years of ministry, not to do at funerals. But on this day, during the video tribute which showed Collins and his large grin in scenes from high school to Iraq — experiencing life with his friends, his family, and his comrades in arms — the tears freely flowed, streaming down my cheeks. I would have been embarrassed but other veterans and soldiers in uniform were doing the same.
The price of freedom — for Americans or for Iraqis — is terribly high. Last Saturday it seemed too high a price to pay. The people gathered at the church expressed their thanks by being present, by showing respect, and by shedding tears.
To those who love freedom and understand what it takes to win and keep it, Lt. Robert Collins will always be remembered as a hero. And though I never met him, he will forever be a hero to me too.
[David Epps is the founding pastor of The Cathedral of Christ the King, 4881 Hwy. 34 E., Sharpsburg, GA 30277, between Peachtree City and Newnan (www.ctkcec.org). Services are held Sundays at 8:30 and 10 a.m. He is also the bishop to the Mid-South Diocese (ICCEC). He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. A website is available at www.midsouthdiocese.org.]