Centerville Baptist Church

Upon these rocks

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Preacher, ex-state official cross paths at hospital and a lasting tribute to granddaughter, 14, is completed

Sydney Hood

April 1, 2016, was one of the darkest days in Rev. Jimmy Hood’s life. But July 19, 2017, brought a light that will forever shine in his heart and at Centerville Baptist Church. An ex-state official he’d just met in a hospital waiting room offered to buy two truckloads of rocks — at a cost upward of $30,000 — to complete a prayer garden that is being constructed in memory of Hood’s granddaughter.

“I know that God performed a miracle for me, and because I know this, I want to share the story with everyone,” he said.

Hood, 75, is pastor at Centerville Baptist, near the Big Creek Community. On that April morning last year, he was taking his 14-year-old granddaughter Sydney to South Jones Middle School, where she was an eighth-grader.

“She was to perform in her first drama production that day,” he recalled. “Sydney was only 14, but she was chosen by the drama teacher who had seen her perform in show choir. She had practiced for weeks, and she was extremely excited about this first performance.”

But the real-life drama — a tragedy — unfolded before they arrived at school. As they were crossing the intersection at Highway 590 and Augusta Road, three minutes away from home, they were struck by another vehicle. When he regained consciousness, volunteer firefighters were using the Jaws of Life to cut the car open to get to them. The woman who hit them was in front of the car, talking on a cellphone. Sydney’s head was on her Papa’s shoulder.

“She never said anything or made a sound,” he said of the girl who earned the nickname “Drama Queen” after she was dubbed a natural-born performer.

Rev. Hood heard plenty of things in his head later, though, some of which haunts him to this day. He was driving a Buick that belonged to a church member — because he had paid to have it fixed for her and it was blocking his vehicle in the driveway. So they just got in the Buick to save time.

“She said, ‘Papa, we’ve got to hurry. I’ve got to fix my hair … Do you know where to let me out?” Hood said, recalling Sydney’s last words before the car — and her family’s world — came crashing in on them.

Questions bombarded his thoughts as he recovered in his hospital bed at Forrest General Hospital, where Sydney was pronounced dead later that day.

What if we had left earlier and I had been in my (SUV)? … How come I didn’t see the car? … Will her parents, Chad and Niki, hate me? …

The latter has been the toughest to deal with.

“They lost everything,” Hood said, wiping his eyes. “That was their only child. I suffer nothing compared to them. I still can’t imagine how Niki and Chad have suffered.”

His son and daughter-in-law never went back to their house. The memories are too painful, he said. They’ve had frank talks about their feelings, too.

“I’ve told him, ‘You and your wife could hate me,’” Hood said. “‘Your daughter was under my care, my authority, and I don’t even know what happened.’”

To this day, he still won’t drive with his son’s son in the vehicle.

But Rev. Hood still found the strength to preach Sydney’s funeral.

“When I first stood up, I went all to pieces,” he recalled, “but then God gave me the strength … I kept hearing the words from the song saying to, ‘Press On.’”

It was a message he has had to tell the families of too many teens who lost their lives too early. At least three have been killed in accidents in the quaint country church that’s grown from an average of about 30 per Sunday to 300 in the 10 years Hood has preached there.

Hood politely declined the request to speak to the Leader-Call about the incident and how he found the strength to preach her funeral a few months after it happened. But he wanted to tell the story of the “Miracle of the Rocks” after what happened on that July morning a few weeks ago at St. Dominic’s Hospital in Jackson, when he was there for a church member who was about to undergo surgery.

Stranger at hospital donates $40,000 for prayer garden

Here’s what happened, in Hood’s words: “We arrived at the hospital at about 6 a.m. and walked into the hospital together. When her husband and I went to the lab with her, I noticed a man and a woman were also waiting. They prepared our patient for surgery, I prayed with her, and then her husband and I made our way to the waiting room. The man and woman I had seen earlier in the lab also came to the same waiting room. The man stated that his mother was having some medical procedures.”

They visited for a while and learned that the couple enjoyed big-game hunting and had done that in many countries. They shared videos and photos. The man mentioned that he had outlived his doctor’s prognosis for his life after having stents placed in his heart.

Rev. Hood then shared the story of his granddaughter and how she had died that morning in April 2016.

“I told the couple about Sydney’s special love for the Lord Jesus Christ and how she would tell strangers about Jesus and how much He meant to her.”

Hood also talked about the prayer garden that he and his wife were building at the church as a lasting tribute to Sydney. It was being constructed on land they bought and donated to the church. Members had not been asked to give money to the project because the building of the Family Life Center is the priority, Hood said. Still, some have given money, time and work toward the prayer garden project.

“I shared our vision for the prayer garden. We want people from everywhere to come and meet Jesus Christ by the waterfall near a 24-foot cross, which will be the focal point of the garden.”

While they were all still in the waiting room, Hood got a call from a church member regarding special rocks from North Alabama that were needed to construct the waterfall and the base of the cross. The cost was about $40,000. Hood said they couldn’t afford that, so they would have to wait or find something else.

Meanwhile, the medical procedures were completed for the man’s mother and he moved to the recovery room to be with her.

They didn’t even know each others’ names.

But when 10 a.m. got there and the church member still had not gone to surgery, Hood said he had to leave and headed to the elevator.

“I heard a voice call from a distance telling me to wait. The man from the waiting room came to me and he said, ‘God let me live to get those rocks for you.’

“I was overcome with emotion. This man is a total stranger, and wants to pay for two 18-wheeler loads of rocks for the prayer garden.”

Former Lt. Gov. Eddie Briggs and his wife Becky.
(Photo submitted)

It was at that point that they finally introduced themselves. The couple was former Lt. Gov. Eddie Briggs and his wife Becky. Briggs served from 1992-96 in the Kirk Fordice administration.

A text message that Briggs sent to Hood explained why he wanted to pay for the project: “I was told in 2006 that I had three years to live. God healed me, maybe just to dig up the rocks for this project. Fun stuff. I love projects.”

After several more texts and having Briggs foot the $40,000 bill, the rocks have been paid for and delivered.

“I know meeting Eddie and Becky was a miracle of God,” Hood said. “God still has special people He is using for His glory. Two of these are Eddie and Becky Briggs. As I tried to thank him and his wife, he sent one last text saying, ‘You are so welcome. No doubt these stones will be an everlasting monument of Sydney’s beautiful memory, the love of her family and friends, and proof that God has a plan for all of us!”

A vision 

of beauty

If Rev. Hood has his way, the prayer garden will be ready on Nov. 9, on what would have been Sydney’s 16th birthday. Weather isn’t always cooperative this time of year, so that will be a tall order, he said. But he has a vision for what it will be like when it is finished.

“My dream is to make it so beautiful, people will want to come from all around to sit and pray or have weddings or events like that,” he said.

With the rocks and waterfall, he wants it to be a serene place, where people can feel close to God, so the ministry that Sydney started as a young child can continue.

“She didn’t care who she saw or where she saw them, she would sit down with them and ask, ‘Do you go to church? Do you go on Wednesday night?,’” Hood said, smiling at the memory.

More than 2,500 people came to the church to pay their respects when she died. Hood’s hope is that the same numbers will continue to come to the church to honor her life, and find the source of her family’s strength.

They could have filled the waterfall with the tears they’ve shed over her death, but it’s not because they’re concerned about where she is now. Still, even a man who graduated from New Orleans Theological Seminary can’t answer that most elusive of questions: Why?

“A lot of times, I just sit in a room and cry,” said Hood, who spent 22 years in the National Guard and was working for the USDA when he “surrendered to preach” and went back to school for it.

The prayer garden won’t bring Sydney back, but he wants it to be a fitting tribute to her that lasts many lifetimes and brings people closer to Jesus … just like she did. Encounters like the one he had at the hospital makes him feel like his mission is rock solid.

“All of it’s been a miracle,” Hood said.