On the surface, it was a typical setting for a church on the fourth Sunday of Advent.
Christmas wreaths hung in the sanctuary windows. The congregation sang “The First Noel” and “Joy to the World.” And the children and adult choirs performed a poignant rendition of “Happy Birthday, Jesus.”
But when it was time for the sermon at First Baptist Church of North Kansas City, the Rev. Tiger Pennington said Amanda Humphrey had something she wanted to share.
And the mother who two years ago suffered the worst tragedy a parent could imagine stepped to the front of the sanctuary and looked out on the hundreds of worshippers.
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“For those of you who don’t know,” she began, “I am Autumn Humphrey’s mother.
“Our daughter was killed in an accident right outside of this very church on September 16, 2012 — just two weeks shy of her first birthday.”
As an 88-year-old driver was leaving the church at 2205 Iron St. that day, his car sped in reverse across the parking lot, striking Autumn’s grandfather, Ron Barnett, who was holding the little girl, and her aunt, Stephne Barnett. Autumn died of her injuries.
“Some may be surprised that I could stand up here today and deliver this testimony to you,” Amanda Humphrey continued. “But I believe God has given me the ability to forgive, which some parents who suffer losses would not be able to do.”
As children, she said, we are taught to forgive, say “please” and “thank you” and treat others the way we would like to be treated.
“Sometimes as adults we find ourselves in situations that we could only imagine what we would do,” she said. “Whether you would forgive a person for wrecking your car, or stealing your bike. You could come up with ideas in your head about what you would do or say to those people.
“But sometimes, when those things actually do happen to you, God steps in just when you least expect it. He has a way of changing our mind and our actions, without us ever knowing it.”
She and her husband, Richard, “went through an amazing transformation as a couple and as a family that day, the weeks to follow and now two years later,” Amanda Humphrey said. But she said there was never any doubt in her mind as to what she needed to do about the man who was behind the wheel.
“I forgave him,” she said, “just as God forgave me.”
When she finished, Amanda Humphrey stepped down and walked back to her seat as the entire congregation stood and applauded. Then she leaned over and hugged the white-haired man with tears in his eyes sitting directly behind her family.
And the man, whose last name is Grace — the man driving the car on that tragic day — hugged her tightly back.
Autumn Nicole Humphrey was born Sept. 30, 2011, at North Kansas City Hospital. She was nine weeks premature, and her tiny heart stopped beating during the delivery. She weighed just 3 pounds, 13 ounces and was 16 inches long. And although multiple complications threatened her life, she fought hard to survive.
Autumn spent five weeks in the neonatal intensive care unit, stealing the hearts of all who took care of her. The staff in the labor and delivery room and nursery doted on her.
The week before she died, her mother took their “miracle baby” to the hospital for a visit.
“She was feisty,” Amanda Humphrey said. “She was a little spitfire. But she was just full of sunshine. She could light up a room with her eyes when she walked in.”
The little girl who loved Cheerios and animal crackers was just starting to talk and take a few steps. On a Sunday in mid-September, Amanda’s grandmother, father and sister had gathered outside church after the service.
“We had gone to our Jeep and had decided to walk over to the truck where they were standing,” Amanda said. “As we walked over, Autumn lit up as she saw her grandpa and waved at him, and she went right to his arms.”
Lewis Grace was parked behind them, she said.
“And when he went to back up, that’s when it happened.”
On a Facebook page dedicated to Autumn, her mother wrote that they will never be able to shake that horrific scene.
“We relive the accident every day in our minds — for those of us that were there, that is our cross we bear,” she said. “I still remember it as if it was yesterday. Picking Autumn up from the nursery (with a great report as always), taking her outside to see the family.
“Then the car ride over to the hospital, the whole time thinking this has to be a dream! Then walking into the ER, the walk to her ER room seemed to be the longest walk in the world. All we wanted was to be with Autumn and comfort her.”
When the doctor motioned for Amanda, she wrote, “I knew she was gone. I knew it the moment I picked her up at the church. But having the doctor confirm my conclusion was the hardest thing I’ve ever faced. Richard raced to my side, but we both collapsed.”
Amanda said in an interview last week that her father and sister also suffered injuries.
“My dad had some injury to his hand and his face,” she said. “But Stephne was actually run over by the car. She had tire marks all over her. She was in the hospital for a couple of days.”
Grace wasn’t charged in the accident. Police said he cooperated with their investigation.
“We had to go in to talk to the police just to kind of explain where we were in the parking lot and how everyone ended up where they were,” Amanda Humphrey said, her voice softening to a whisper. “But there was no way we would press charges. It was an accident.”
Pennington said in an interview that “there were two distinct, powerful tragedies that day.”
“The first is the obvious, and very wretchedly painful,” he said. “I heard a commotion, I heard Amanda, and within 30 seconds I’m right there with Richard and Amanda and Autumn. And Autumn is loaded onto the ambulance and taken away.
“That’s when I turn and over my right shoulder I see the man who was driving the car. And it was another tragedy because of the sweetness and gentleness of his spirit and just how devastated I knew he would be.”
Autumn’s funeral was the following Saturday. Hundreds of friends and family members packed the church on that first day of fall to celebrate her brief life.
As Pennington prepared to conduct the service, he witnessed something that not only restored his strength but moved him to tears.
Amanda Humphrey asked to see Lewis Grace.
She hugged the distraught man and told him she forgave him. Then Amanda and Richard Humphrey asked Lewis Grace and his wife, Louise, to sit with them during the service.
Amanda Humphrey said in the recent interview that the Graces are “an amazing couple that lives for God.” They had just met them that morning for the first time, she said.
“They go to this church; they had been members of this church longer than we had,” she said. “I wanted him to understand that we really did forgive him and that we wanted him to be a part of this with us and grieve with us and know that it’s OK.”
She said she couldn’t fathom being in Grace’s position.
“I think a lot of the reason I was so willing to forgive him is I can’t imagine waking up every day in his shoes and thinking that he’d put a family in any situation like that,” she said. “I wouldn’t be able to live with myself, especially if someone wasn’t willing to forgive me. I want to forgive, because I want people to forgive me.”
The Humphreys said their faith has played a crucial role in the healing process.
“The power of prayer holds a bigger part than a lot of people think that it does,” Amanda said. “We have tons of people praying all over the world for us and for what we’ve gone through and just continuing to pray for us. They prayed for us to have another child, and three months later we were pregnant.”
Their son, Tommy, was born Aug. 12, 2013. Like his sister, he was premature and spent time in the hospital’s NICU.
“We love being parents,” Amanda said, her voice breaking. “It’s addictive being a parent and having that child look in your eyes and know that’s your child. We missed it as soon as she was gone. We had always wanted to have more kids.”
The resemblance between Tommy and Autumn is remarkable.
“I love it because Thomas actually means ‘twin,’” Amanda said. “And the fact that he looks so much like Autumn, it just seems like it was perfect and meant to be for us to have a little boy and name him Thomas.”
Richard Humphrey said church members and others have offered their support.
“It’s kind of nice to see that it’s not just within our community,” he said. “People we don’t even know still pray for us and they think about us and they continue to just hope for the best for us, and we really appreciate that.”
The couple said, however, that not everyone has understood their actions.
“A lot of people don’t look at somebody in their mid-20s to go through what we did and to have the fortitude to kind of stand up,” Richard Humphrey said. “Some were like, ‘How can you do it?’”
Others, they said, seemed to think that they weren’t grieving properly because they were willing to forgive so soon.
But for the most part, their actions have inspired others.
“Amanda, you and Richard are such a living witness to so many things,” wrote one woman on Autumn’s memorial Facebook page. “I think we all wish we could change what happened or try to understand why. Watching you two work through what happened and live out your testimonies of forgiveness has been the most human example of God’s love and sacrifice for us and Christ’s forgiveness that I’ve ever seen.”
As Amanda Humphrey spoke to the congregation the Sunday before Christmas, she said that when Autumn died, “I had this overwhelming feeling of calm.”
“I knew Autumn was with God,” she said. “And I love to talk about her and our situation. I feel God has given me a gift to share with the world. She was only here 11 and a half months, but she has touched so many lives.”
Amanda said she wanted to let anyone who had lost a son, daughter, brother, sister, mother or father know that there is hope.
“God will give you the strength each day to get up and get out of bed,” she said.
Forgiveness, she said, is what keeps her going.
“Forgiveness gave me a handsome son, Thomas,” she said. “Forgiveness allows me to carry on each day, still remembering our sweet little girl. Forgiveness makes me a better person. Forgiveness allows me to understand God.”
Yes, she said, some days are much harder than others.
“But I can wake up each day knowing that it is one day closer to seeing her again,” she said. “And I want to live my life the way Autumn wants me to. I live for her, through her, to be a better, stronger person. After all, she does make us ALL better.”
The Humphreys said afterward that the decision to talk to the congregation wasn’t difficult.
“No hesitation, really,” Amanda Humphrey said. “I just felt like it was something I wanted to share with people.”
She acknowledged that the story is sad, but she thinks it helps the church to talk about it.
“When her accident happened, I just really felt like if we didn’t come back to the church, that would speak volumes for ourselves, that we didn’t really have the faith,” she said. “And I didn’t want people to think for any reason that we didn’t believe, because we do.”
Pennington said Autumn’s death and her family’s compassion have touched the entire congregation.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen a family walk through such a tragedy with such eyes-open, faith-filled courage,” he said. “They haven’t run from any of it.”
And they haven’t wavered in their forgiveness of Lewis Grace.
“He’s had health issues off and on, and if he’s in the hospital, some of the first people to see him are members of the Barnett or Humphrey family,” Pennington said. “They’ll be the first to ask about them if he and his wife aren’t in church for a couple of weeks. … It’s really incredible.”
Soon, Pennington said, a memorial to Autumn will be placed near the site of the accident.
“It’ll be a bronze plaque in the ground and a light to shine on it at night,” he said. “It will reflect Autumn, it will reflect the testimony of forgiveness. And in the building right above where that is will be inscribed the Scripture, ‘Forgive one another as God in Christ has forgiven you.’”
Pennington said he couldn’t think of a more fitting time for Amanda Humphrey to share her story.
“The real gift that we have been given in Advent, in the Christ child, is that God comes to Earth to walk with us right where we are in our suffering and pain, but also to provide forgiveness,” he said. “And it was their act of forgiving that empowered them to stay on the journey of healing.
“So, yes, it’s like it’s the Christmas story in the raw, and in a way that makes a real difference.”
After the Dec. 21 service, Richard and Amanda Humphrey hugged Lewis and Louise Grace and wished them a merry Christmas. Lewis Grace beamed as Amanda’s mother, Roberta Barnett, placed 16-month-old Tommy on his lap.
“Her testimony was wonderful,” Lewis Grace said. “I am so blessed.”
The World War II veteran, who received the French Legion of Honor for his role in that country’s liberation, described that moment two years ago as “a terrible, terrible day.”
“It was tragic,” he said. “I couldn’t believe it.”
Louise Grace said her husband was devastated.
“He cried nonstop for days,” she said. “I don’t think he would have made it without their love and outreach.”
Now 90, Lewis Grace stopped driving after the accident. Since that day, Autumn’s family and the Graces have grown close.
Louise Grace pointed to a handmade bag hanging on the front of her husband’s walker that holds a Bible and other materials.
“Mrs. Barnett’s mother made this for him,” she said.
The Barnetts also have gone to dinner with the Graces, and Amanda Humphrey fondly describes Lewis as “an additional grandpa” in the family.
After Autumn’s death, the Graces’ daughter sent the Humphreys a card expressing gratitude for their compassion.
The heartfelt message needed no explanation.
“From the Grace family to the family of grace.”