The cars have lined the neighborhood streets, as teenagers flood out of the vehicles in school colors and painted faces. Many of the vehicles are still painted as well. Their windows marked with the motto that was introduced to our city on Friday night just a week before.
Pray For Walker.
Earlier in the day, hundreds drove to a funeral that shouldn’t happen. We’re not supposed to have funerals for teenagers. Yet as they drove, they passed by brightly lit red and blue billboards, the colors of Jackson Prep. They had a simple message written on them as well: the number 65, Walker’s number. It was a reminder to those driving by and to the whole community that they were not driving to a funeral. They were headed towards a celebration of a spectacular young life.
“I think your second post starts tonight.”
A youth minister’s words hit me as we walked past the cars together. I knew he was right. There was plenty more to write, and he knew exactly what those words needed to say.
“The healing starts now.”
This week in Jackson, Mississippi has been a heavy one, but one that centered on healing. We saw the loss of a promising future, but we understood the impact of a remarkable young man. A young man who, though he was not healed in the way we wanted him to be, was healed eternally. And through this heavy situation, healing was spread.
The stories started to circulate not long after Walker Wilbanks’ passing. His brother mentioned several of them on social media. How Walker’s organs had been donated. How his lungs had gone to somebody who needed them. Same with the liver and pancreas. His heart went to a 14-year-old boy desperately in need. Even his corneas were donated, giving sight to someone who could not see.
Healing. Not the way we wanted it, but in a way much more magnificent than we could imagine.
And healing will take place for those who don’t understand what happened. On Saturday, Jackson Prep will travel to play against Copiah Academy about an hour away. This summer, Copiah Academy lost their native son, Adam Day. This, their first home game, was planned to be in honor of Adam. Now, instead of a lone, solitary memorial, they will have brothers from another school there beside them who understand all too well what they’re going through. Both Adam and Walker will be honored together, and for both teams, the healing process will begin. And they will not have to go through it alone.
Just the same, the healing process will begin in Jackson as well. It will begin, even as the scrolling marquee sign at Jackson Prep repeats “Pray For The Wilbanks Family” on a loop. It will begin tonight, as we walk past the parked cars and squeeze alongside students through the gates and up into the bleachers. We will greet all the people we know from church, say hello to all of the kids in our youth groups, and purchase refreshments from our co-workers and friends. Friday night, as it always has been, is about high school football with our friends and family.
Fridays nights in the Deep South aren’t just football games. They are town hall gatherings. They are potluck suppers and family reunions. They are social events for the young and old. They are always more than they appear to be.
This Friday, the anniversary of Hurricane Katrina’s destruction of the Mississippi Gulf Coast, is just one week removed from Walker Wilbanks’ final football game. Tonight, it is far more than a football game. It is a soothing balm.
Prep’s rivals, Jackson Academy, take the field for their first home game. Their helmets have a large “65” patch, paying tribute to the guy they knew since elementary school and looked forward to matching up against every year. There is a moment of silence and a prayer. Walker’s brother is in the stands. And as the moment of silence is past and the Star Spangled Banner played, balloons are released into the air. Blue and white balloons, matching the colors of Jackson Academy, floating up and away in one large group.
Yet one thing stands out. It isn’t far away from the pack of blue and white balloons at first, but slowly and surely, it emerges and drifts on its own path. A path nobody expected. It is a single, solitary red balloon, and it travels on its path, upward and alone.
We sit in the stands and put stickers on our shirts. One says “JA Raiders” in blue and white. Another is in red, with the motto that we will have painted on our hearts for a long time to come.
#65. Play For Walker.
The ball is kicked. The healing process has begun.