Every student and teacher from Christ Presbyterian Academy one morning last week stood in the driveway of a dying teacher and sang hymns, which was captured on video that has gone viral, with more than 20 million page views.
But it’s not really a surprise to students and faculty.
Those who were there say they knew they were part of a once-in-a-lifetime moment honoring beloved Latin teacher Ben Ellis, who has esophageal cancer.
“It’s wonderful how the whole school went out in that moment and trusted God that it was right,” said Mary McKennon Pierce, 16, a junior.
Turns out that powerful move was spontaneous.
It started last Tuesday night (Sept. 6) when parents learned in an online forum that Ellis decided he no longer would receive treatment to battle cancer and that he would begin hospice care, several teachers and friends said.
One of the student’s mothers, Lisa Fruchy, texted several parents: Wouldn’t it be great if we worshiped outside his house?
The next morning, several teachers and administrators gathered an hour before school to pray for their colleague and friend.
An assistant principal, Katherine Caine, told the group: When I drove past Ben’s neighborhood, it hit me how awesome it would be if we all worshiped outside his window.
That rang a bell with Dan Carpenter, Ellis’ longtime friend and fellow teacher, who was in that prayer circle.
“I said, ‘You’re the second person who said that,’” Carpenter said. “There was a sense that this was an idea from God.”
The assistant principal called the principal, who called the headmaster.
“I said, ‘Let’s go.’ Ben is a man who deeply loved people and pursued students, and spent his career doing that. And this was a chance to love him back,” headmaster Nathan Morrow said.
Teachers told student worship leaders to gather some guitars and sheet music.
The principal, Parker Altman, ran the idea by Ellis and his wife, and they both agreed it would be wonderful.
“No brainer,” Ellis wrote in an email interview with The Tennessean.
“I thought I would love to have these students come and sing and worship with me!”
But the Ellises said the teacher probably wouldn’t be able to leave his bed.
Two hours later, the students heard an announcement: We are going to Mr. Ellis’ house and we’re going to worship in his yard. If anyone doesn’t want to go, you can go to the library. Teachers, if you’re in the middle of a test, sorry, but you can finish it when we get back.
The announcement rocked the students. On the one hand, this meant that Mr. Ellis likely had taken a bad turn. On the other, they could pray with and celebrate one of their favorite teachers.
“I was really scared. I was afraid it had gotten a lot worse,” said sophomore Kate Bostick, 16. “This was going to be the final chance to see him.”
Seniors piled into about 40 cars, and the rest of the high school students got on several buses.
They arrived, gathered in Ellis’ driveway and heard one of his friends read a message that Ellis wrote for the students:
“I love you. I believe now more than ever that God is good and he is with us. I am full of hope, peace and joy. I wish all this for you. Look to Jesus to know, to believe, and to be filled.”
More than 400 students started singing hymns, some tearfully, to an open bedroom window.
After a couple of songs, Ellis, weak, bald, wearing a tube for oxygen under his nose, made his way to the window. He smiled, waved and sang along softly.
“Everyone started crying. The football guys, everyone,” Bostick said.
“It was really shocking to see everyone moved that much. It was one of the most amazing things that’s ever happened to me.”
Ellis had the same feeling.
“I already felt loved by God, but it was extra meaningful that God poured his love out to me through 500 people who loved me so well,” he wrote. “And yes, it made me cry too!”
After the singing, Ellis whispered words for his friend Dan Carpenter to repeat loudly to the students. And Ellis moved away from the window.
Students, faculty and administrators started hugging each other. And they stayed. And stayed. And stayed.
“We all knew we’d just witnessed something we’d never seen before, never would see again,” said close friend Ben Howard, who was in the bedroom with Ellis. “It felt supernatural, bigger than us.”
The students, eventually, went back to school.
“This is something every single person will remember the rest of their lives,” Morrow said.
“It may be the most important thing the kids learn – when it’s hard, we come together in love.”
Thanks in part to repost from Tim McGraw, a video from the event went viral, scoring more than 20 million views in two days.
Most commentators from around the country are praising the students and staff from CPA for reaching out in a special way to a beloved dying teacher.
And that feels good to those who were there.
“More than 20 million views?” Pierce said. “It’s really amazing to realize we’re part of something so much bigger.”
“So many people are getting to see God’s love poured out through these teenagers that I never dreamed would happen,” he wrote.
“I hope that people who are desperate and hurting and insecure will see the love and the hope and the peace and the joy that’s available to them.”