As the Rev. Tiger Pennington prepared to conduct the funeral for the 11-month-old girl struck by a car in a church parking lot last Sunday, he heard something that restored his strength — and moved him to tears.
Autumn Nicole Humphrey’s parents asked to meet with the 88-year-old man who was driving the car.
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Then they forgave him, Pennington told reporters Saturday outside the First Baptist Church of North Kansas City.
“The most real expressions of faith and Christianity I think I’ve ever seen in my life occurred inside just a few minutes ago as Richard and Amanda and that entire family embraced the driver of the car and said, ‘We know it was an accident. We forgive you,’ ” Pennington said.
Then, he said, the family asked the man to sit with them during Autumn’s memorial service, which took place on the first day of fall and eight days before she would have celebrated her first birthday.
The accident occurred Sept. 16 as the driver was leaving the church at 2205 Iron St. in North Kansas City and his car sped in reverse across the parking lot. Autumn’s grandfather, Ronald Barnett, 65, who was holding Autumn at the time, and her aunt, Stephane Barnett, 40, suffered injuries that were not life-threatening. Police continue to investigate the incident and say the driver has cooperated.
Hundreds of friends and family members packed the church Saturday to celebrate Autumn’s brief life.
“We gather on this first day of autumn to celebrate the gift of Autumn,” Pennington told mourners. “We gather to acknowledge the grief and to begin the journey of working through to peace.”
Autumn’s tiny white casket sat at the front of the church, surrounded by dozens of floral arrangements. A slide show depicted scenes from the little girl’s life: Autumn in the neonatal intensive care unit at North Kansas City Hospital, her head fitting easily in her father’s hand. Autumn wearing a black cowboy hat. Autumn napping with Dad. Autumn’s first Christmas.
Last Sunday, Pennington said, Autumn went from the arms of her grandfather to the arms of Jesus.
“The place prepared for her has got Winnie-the-Pooh and Tigger, too,” he said, eliciting chuckles.
Pennington told those attending the service that on the wall in Autumn’s nursery was a quote: “Angels danced on the day you were born.”
“Angels danced on the day she was born,” he said. “And we all, too, shall learn to dance because this angel passed our way.”
Forgiveness was a recurring theme during the service.
Pennington spoke of the “amazing things this family has been able to do,” referring to their forgiving the driver who struck their daughter.
“Amanda and Richard and this family continually were saying, ‘We want him there. We want him to know that we forgive him and we know it was an accident,’ ” he said.
“It must be said this day that perhaps the most powerful expression of real faith, of real Christianity that I’ve ever been privileged to witness took place somewhere about 1:15 this afternoon.”
Patti Bradley, a nurse at North Kansas City Hospital, told those attending about the day Autumn was born on Sept. 30, 2011.
She was nine weeks premature, Bradley said. She said that Amanda Humphrey’s heart stopped beating during the delivery and that the baby’s response alerted the nurse that her mother was in trouble.
“Autumn saved her mother’s life even before she was born,” Bradley said.
The baby weighed 3 pounds, 13 ounces and was 16 inches long at birth, Bradley said. And although her life was threatened by multiple complications, she fought hard to survive.
Autumn was discharged from the hospital just before Thanksgiving, but not before stealing the hearts of all who took care of her. Just last week, Bradley said, “our miracle baby” dropped by for a visit. And Bradley taped an invitation to Autumn’s first birthday party on her door.
“She has touched the lives of every person here,” Bradley said. “She will live in the hearts of her parents and family forever.”