by Sharon K. Williams
On September 12, 2014, Eric Frein allegedly shot two police officers at the Pennsylvania State Police station in Blooming Grove. Bryon Dickson died and Alex Douglass was critically injured. Frein eluded a massive manhunt in the Poconos Mountains and a national media campaign for seven weeks.
The village of Canadensis, Pennsylvania became the focal point of the search, as Frein’s parents live nearby. Spruce Lake Retreat, a conference-related ministry, was four miles outside the 10-mile search area.
Outdoor education groups, a large part of Spruce Lake’s ministry in the fall, started to call. Was Spruce Lake employing security guards? How could reservations be canceled?
The Spruce Lake staff began to pray that Eric would be found quickly without further injury to anyone, and that Spruce Lake would be able to recover their guests. Christians in the area gathered daily for prayer at the local United Methodist church. They prayed for protection of the police and the local residents. When Spruce Lake’s executive director Mark Swartley and other staff openly prayed for Eric, they realized they were introducing a unique request.
Meanwhile, the search and the cancellations continued. Ertell Whigham, Franconia Mennonite Conference’s executive minister, consulted with Mark as to how the conference might be supportive. They decided to invite the intercessory prayer team to minister “on the ground.”
Four intercessors (Don Brunk, Souderton Mennonite; Sandy Landes, Doylestown Mennonite; Jeannette Phillips, Hopewell Christian Fellowship; and Noel Santiago, Franconia Conference’s minister of spiritual transformation) came forward.
“Our desire,” said Noel, “is to hear from God, believing that what emerges is from God.” As they prayed throughout the day, four directives came into focus:
- An invitation for the Spruce Lake staff to take their eyes off “the man in the woods” (Eric) and to focus on “the man on the wood” (Jesus), the One who knows all things;
- A petition for the people and the land—for healing, peace, and keen awareness of the presence of God;
- Eric’s salvation—to know and accept God’s love and forgiveness;
- Comfort and healing for the Dickson and Douglass families.
The next day, October 30, Mark excitedly phoned Noel. “Did you hear? Turn on the news! They found Eric—and no one was harmed!”
“The timing,” reported Jeannette, “was a God thing.” It had taken several days for the intercessors to make arrangements for the visit.
Spruce Lake lost $155,000 due to the cancellations of 35 outdoor school and weekend retreat groups. The retreat center did not hold deposits or force contracts. “While police assured us that we were not in the search area, we did not argue with people’s fear,” said Mark. “But we chose to honor God for what God has done and what God is doing. God is in this situation. We are in God’s care. What was out of our control was in God’s control.”
In November, Spruce Lake held a fundraising campaign to make up some of the lost income, and were able to raise $25,000 in a matching donation challenge.
“Our prayer commitment is not finished,” said Noel. “We continue to pray for Eric’s salvation, and for healing and reconciliation for all involved.”