Sports Church in the Canyon became grieving site for Lakers fans

23:41  24 january  2021
23:41  24 january  2021 Source:   usatoday.com

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CALABASAS, Calif. – The pastor stared out toward his attentive congregation. He sensed their anger, sadness and confusion.

So Bob Bjerkaas, pastor at Church in the Canyon, delivered a sermon that not only included Bible verses but also addressed his congregation's varying emotions after the sudden death of a Los Angeles Lakers star.

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"Kobe Bryant was a man like you and me," Bjerkaas said. "He had ups and downs, strengths and weaknesses, feelings and hopes. But he also had something extraordinary, and it was a gift from God."

Bjerkaas, known as “Pastor Bob,” spoke those words Jan. 26, 2020, roughly 8½ hours after Bryant, his 13-year-old daughter Gianna and seven others died in a helicopter crash. The crash took place on a hillside near the Santa Monica Mountains directly across the street from Bjerkass' church.

During an hour-long service, Bjerkaas prayed for the nine victims, quoting the book of Ecclesiastes, which details how God helps people deal with both joy and suffering. And in a 13-minute sermon, he sought to comfort grieving Bryant fans.

“I look back on that and I wonder, ‘Did I do enough as a local pastor?’ Bjerkaas told USA TODAY Sports nearly a year later. “Did we do enough to serve the local community? I always want to do my best.”

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Those who visited the Church in the Canyon that day believe that Bjerkaas did. Nearly 80 fans, nearly all first-time visitors, attended the vigil service at the church, which can hold 110 people. After the service, plenty of those fans embraced and prayed with Bjerkaas.

“It was very life changing,” said Irvin Guillermo, 32, of Northridge. “The fact this happened to Kobe Bryant is such a tragedy, and we wish it didn’t happen. But Pastor Bob spoke to me and made me realize that death isn’t something we should fear. The way he described it was that Kobe is at peace. That inspired me and motivated me to enjoy every moment of my life.”

Watching as the tragedy unfolded

Bjerkaas offered such perspective nearly nine hours after first processing the tragedy.

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While teaching a Sunday school class around 9:45 a.m., Bjerkaas heard the sound of a low-flying helicopter followed by a loud thump. Bjerkaas thought nothing of it. Helicopters and planes fly frequently over Calabasas to connect to the Burbank and LAX airports.

Elizabeth Howland Forrest, a member of the church, was much more concerned. While driving from Santa Monica, she marveled at the low-flying helicopter that she followed west along interstate 101. She then lost sight of it after exiting the freeway and eventually parking at the church. As she finished applying her makeup, Howland Forrest saw the helicopter again in her rearview mirror.

Then she saw the helicopter crash into the hillside behind the Las Virgenes Municipal Water District building across from the church. She saw smoke immediately.

“I waited a while,” Howland Forrest said. “I was concerned what the danger might be.”

As the 10:45 service began inside the church, Howland Forrest stayed outside to help accommodate arrivals of police, firemen, reporters and onlookers. One television reporter relayed the news to Howland Forrest that Kobe and Gianna Bryant were among the passengers. Soon enough, Bryant’s chauffeur arrived to speak to authorities.

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“He was speechless,” Howland Forrest said of Bryant’s chauffeur. “He was completely in grief and found it unbelievable.”

So Howland Forrest passed along a note to alert Bjerkaas about the news of Bryant and his daughter. Since their identities were not yet verified, Bjerkaas stayed quiet. But he centered his sermon on the book of Job, which involves a righteous man experiencing tragedy and how he dealt with it. Bjerkaas told his congregation that the helicopter crash “reminded us that life is not a guaranteed thing.”

A church member then interrupted and announced that Kobe and Gianna Bryant were among the victims.

“It was very, very distressing,” Bjerkaas said. “I have some real die-hard Lakers fans in my congregation. They were pretty shook.”

So were the 200 grieving fans that Bjerkaas said arrived within a half hour after his sermon. By then the sheriff’s department blocked off road access at check points near the crash site. That included the church’s location on the corner of Las Virgenes Road and Willow Glen Street. Mourners and reporters soon filled the sidewalks.

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Suddenly, Church in the Canyon became the gathering place to grieve.

“We didn’t have a plan; we didn’t have supplies,” Bjerkaas said. “All we had was a whole bunch of coffee and a whole bunch of coffee cups.”

A safe haven for mourning fans

Through the day, Bjerkaas estimated the church served about 400 cups of coffee to mourning Bryant fans. He also allowed them to also use the church’s bathroom. The church became more than just a free coffee shop, though.

a man wearing a suit and tie smiling at the camera: Pastor Bob Bjerkaas of Church in the Canyon helped Lakers fans deal with the loss of former Lakers star Kobe Bryant. © Bob and Kerrie Bjerkaas Pastor Bob Bjerkaas of Church in the Canyon helped Lakers fans deal with the loss of former Lakers star Kobe Bryant.

Bjerkaas empathized with those grieving. After seeing one distressed Bryant fan smoking marijuana on church property, Bjerkaas respectfully confronted him about tossing it before they prayed together.

“Pastor Bob was remarkable,” Howland Forrest said. “He had a humble heart with recognizing that for all the people coming there, it was not a convenient location. They were tired. They were thirsty. And there wasn’t anything around for them. His desire was for people to feel comfortable, welcomed, be able to have a place to rest if they needed. He was 100% consistent 100% of the time.”

Although he admired Bryant, Bjerkaas did not have a personal connection to the Lakers star. Bjerkaas, who was born in Columbia, Maryland, grew up rooting for the Washington Bullets. But after Church in the Canyon hired him as pastor in 2007, Bjerkaas quickly learned what Bryant meant to L.A. Most of his congregation are Lakers fans. One of his administrative assistants has Bryant posters plastered all over her office walls.

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Bryant’s impact did not fully register, however, until his death.

“What struck me was how close the connection Kobe Bryant had with his fans,” Bjerkaas said. “A lot of them said, 'I thought of him as an older brother.' Or they said watching him go through his issues helped me grow up.”

Opening the church during a pandemic

That fateful day on Jan. 26, 2020 marked the beginning of a tragic year. For the next week, Bjerkaas and his wife held impromptu gatherings for fans at the crash site. Bjerkaas, who also coaches youth lacrosse, made yellow street signs and his players held them in the neighborhood to direct visitors to the church.

Their ministry soon ended abruptly. On March 22, the Church in the Canyon closed because of the coronavirus outbreak. Bjerkaas pre-recorded services to post on YouTube.

The church received approval to hold outdoor services in August, but by January indoor services were allowed at smaller capacity. The church has required attendees to take temperature checks, follow social distancing rules and bring their own Bible and take pre-packaged Communion.

Bjerkaas would like to open the church’s doors for fans around the anniversary of Kobe and Gianna Bryant's deaths. Unlike the frenetic scene during last year's tragedy, roads are no longer blocked off and there are no markings around the crash site. Whether the church can open to fans next week partly depends on the city’s policy regarding public gatherings amid the pandemic. Unlike last year, Bjerkaas will not be able to give out a cup of coffee, say a prayer or deliver a sermon to all interested Bryant fans.

“This year in general has taught us really to think that life is a fragile and precious thing,” Bjerkaas said. “Things can change in a moment.”

Follow USA TODAY NBA writer Mark Medina on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Church in the Canyon became grieving site for Lakers fans

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