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Beliefs

Sermon on lessons of Metrolink crash

Minister delivers a message on the life of a fellow preacher who died after being injured in train crash.

September 20, 2008|Hector Becerra | Times Staff Writer

For more than 13 hours, Pastor Tony Amatangelo had prayed and watched over his friend and fellow minister as he lay in a county hospital after being pulled from the wreckage of Metrolink 111. Paul Long died, and four hours later, physically and emotionally spent, Amatangelo returned to his Moorpark home.

Sunday service was coming. What would he say? The pastor felt chances were slim that the sermon he had written for the service would be relevant after the crash.

Then he remembered.

Long, 54, an assistant pastor at Life Spring Community Church and a teacher at Oaks Christian School, had always been known for his teachable moments. As part of his "object lessons" Long would bring in just about any kind of prop -- a shovel, a cookie or old sneakers -- to drive a message home.

As night fell, Amatangelo realized that Long had already written the message for that Sunday. Literally. But the sermon would need a little rewording, and nerves to deliver it. Sunday came.

"Today is Pastor Paul's statement," Amatangelo told his flock the day after Long died. "Pastor Paul was always about his object lessons. Well, Pastor Paul's life and death this weekend is the object lesson for the day."

Long, his wife of 32 years, Karen, and their 16-year-old son, Devin, were returning from his mother's funeral in South Carolina when the train collided with a Union Pacific freight train Sept. 12.

Karen and Devin were hurt, but Long was thrown head-first into some stairs and suffered massive head trauma. He was taken to Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center in Boyle Heights while Karen and Devin were taken to Huntington Memorial Hospital in Pasadena.

Some members of the Life Spring church knew the Longs had been on the train so parishioners drove to the crash. Amatangelo, his wife, Sylvia, and about 30 other church members, as well as people from Oaks Christian, showed up at both hospitals.

About 8:30 p.m. that Friday, Devin was released, and he and Amatangelo drove to County-USC, along with other church members. He and the boy saw Long, whose face was swollen and bruised. Devin told his father that he loved him.

About 10:30 p.m., the pastor recalled, trauma physicians told Devin and Amatangelo that they had done all that they could, and that it was time to decide about life support. Long would need a miracle. They called Karen.

"We chose to give God 20 minutes to work the miracle," Amatangelo wrote in an intimate, moment-by-moment narrative he gave to church members.

That night, another pastor, Hank Laird, made late calls to the church's 14 "shepherds," parishioners who in turn called other church members. They asked them to pray for Long.

The miracle did not happen. Amatangelo called Karen Long. She wanted to be with her husband when life support was withdrawn. It was very early Saturday morning. Doctors at Huntington advised her not to leave. She had to think about her son now, so she waited.

By 10:30 a.m. Saturday, she was able to travel to County-USC and she sat with her husband and bid him goodbye. Scans showed no brain activity. Amatangelo prayed and wept with Karen and Devin, who could not bear to be in the room as Long died.

"God says, 'I will never leave you or forsake you,' and I believe that," Karen Long recalled this week. "Because Jesus is not here on Earth in physical form anymore, the church is the body of Christ and the church becomes the hands and feet and voice of the Lord."

Inside Long's room, with nurses, doctors and a few friends, Sylvia Amatangelo, the pastor's wife, recited Psalm 23: "Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me."

About noon, Long was taken off the ventilator, and at 12:45 p.m. pronounced dead.

The next day, Sunday, at the warehouse-turned-church, Tony Amatangelo spoke to parishioners about the moment he realized that the day's sermon was already written.

"Pastor Paul's passing to go with Jesus wasn't a surprise to God," he said.

Every six to eight weeks, Long and Amatangelo used to eat dinner at Sharky's in Westlake Village and plan the life lessons for Sunday services. And so it was that Paul Long came up with the Scripture, the theme and the key verses for that Sunday, Sept. 14.

"God has a message for us today, and Pastor Paul is going to preach it with his life and death," Amatangelo said. "Because when he came up here, he wanted us to see, not just to hear the message."

Amatangelo talked about "the rapture" -- when believers would be swept up to heaven -- and about coming tribulations, about angels blowing trumpets, about war and death and disease and calamity. He talked about how the train crash that claimed 25 lives and injured more than 130 people would pale in comparison to what was about to come.

"But Revelation ends with the glorious return of Jesus Christ," Amatangelo said. "That's the end of the story in the Scriptures. What's the end of the story for Devin and Karen?"

Amatangelo continued, responding to his own question: "A kingdom of righteousness that is everlasting, and peace and hope and glory beyond imagination. It doesn't feel like that to us today. But it's the end of the story because we've read the end."

"We didn't see it, but as those trains collided just on the Chatsworth and Simi Valley border, Pastor Paul saw the sign of the Son of Man," the pastor told a hushed church. "We looked at a body that was bloody and bruised. Pastor Paul saw glory. He would tell us to comfort yourself with this thought: 'It didn't look to me like it looked to you.' "

There is hope amid the pall.

"But for those of us here, listen to the words of Pastor Paul. 'Be alert. Be watchful. Be ready. Be about your Father's business,' " he said. " 'Because you do not know the day that your Lord will come for you.' "

--

hector.becerra@latimes.com

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