Pastor Erik Fitzgerald lost his wife and son in a tragic car accident in the fall of 2006. He was serving as a youth pastor at Hebron Baptist Church in Dacula, Georgia when he learned that Matthew Swatzell, a twenty-year-old firefighter, had collided with his wife's vehicle head-on after falling asleep at the wheel of his pick-up truck. Erik's pregnant wife was pronounced dead upon arriving at the hospital, and his unborn son was also killed during the accident.
Firefighter Matthew Swatzell had just finished a busy 24-hour shift, getting only about thirty minutes of sleep, and decided that he would drive home without taking a nap. Two miles from his destination, he fell asleep at the wheel and drove into oncoming traffic. Swatzell hit June Fitzgerald's car head on, and she died shortly thereafter. June was seven months pregnant, and sustained injuries to the stomach which killed her unborn son. Thankfully, her 19-month-old daughter who was also in the car miraculously survived the accident with only minor bruising.
"Not only did I lose my wife and my best friend, but also a son," Erik remembers with tears in his eyes. In his immense pain, the youth pastor sought the Lord. While turning to God's word for understanding, Erik remembered a sermon about the story that God weaves together gloriously throughout all of time. "We have a tendency to look at our lives as little 3x5 snapshots," Erik says - "and we tend to get focused on whether our 3x5 is ok or not. We lose sight of the fact that God is doing bigger things - His story is bigger than just ours, that He paints on a canvas the size of the universe."
Remembering that God is good and that He has good plans for His children was a turning point for Erik - "It saved my life," he says.
Meanwhile, the firefighter struggled with understanding how God could allow something so tragic to happen to him; he felt terribly for the pastor, especially since the Fitzgeralds were such a godly family. Swatzell hit rock-bottom one night, and cried out to the Lord for help - "I'm putting all my faith in You, that You had a reason for this, and that You do have a plan," he said. In that moment, the young man says he deeply felt the presence of God - "It was like He placed His hand on my shoulder, and wrapped me in a blanket of comfort," he says.
Swatzell wanted to express his sorrow to Erik for his loss, but the two men were unable to speak with one another for two years while the accident was being investigated. He had heard from others that Erik was praying for him, however. "I really couldn't understand that," Swatzell remembers - "but I knew that was God working through him."
Erik was eventually asked whether he wanted to press full charges against the firefighter for his actions. Realizing that no amount of punishment would bring back his wife and son, he instead opted to show grace to the young man who had killed them. Erik believed that "this would be a wonderful opportunity for God to get glory and for Christ to be lifted up ... an opportunity to demonstrate God's forgiveness and God's love."
On the day before the two year anniversary of the accident, Matthew saw Erik in a convenience store. Tears streamed down the young man's face as the pastor embraced him. Erik began to tell Swatzell about the perspective that the Lord had given him over the past two years, and the men talked for almost two hours that day.
"It was a beautiful time where we shared [about] experiencing God's grace, God's healing, the power of forgiveness, [and] restoration," Erik says. He expressed his desire to stay in Swatzell's life, and the young man also wanted to grow in fellowship together from that point on.
More than seven years later, Swatzell and Erik still meet for fellowship. The firefighter recently got married, and says Erik is "full of advice" to help keep God at the center of his marriage. "There's a bond, there's a camaraderie ... something just unique," Erik says of their friendship.
While Erik attests that his life is still painful at times, he has much hope. "There's not a day that goes by that I don't wish June was still here," he says - "but through it all, God has been with me ... I am who I am today because of what God has done in me through these circumstances - and for that, I'm thankful."
Just as the Lord has worked healing in both of their lives, the two men hope that God will use their story to help bring healing to others as well. "God has taught me through Erik [about] the power of forgiveness, healing through forgiveness, and His faithfulness," says Swatzell - "Through Erik's friendship, my life is forever changed."