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Tragedy rocks church journey

Our Savior's Mark Phillips dies on trip
by: Submitted, Mark Phillips

The blare of a ram's horn resonated through a Baton Rouge sanctuary.

Minutes later, Mark William Phillips, 41, director of high school ministries for Our Savior's Lutheran Church in Lake Oswego, collapsed from heart failure onto the hardwood floor.

On the morning of June 21, Phillips suffered a fatal heart attack at a Loui-siana trauma camp church as his choir sang to child victims of Hurricane Katrina at a weeklong event.

The horn, known as a shofar, biblically an-nounced the coming of death and God. Lutherans present immediately took the horn's sound as prophetic to Phillips' passing.

'How did this happen?' Senior High Youth Choir Director and Contemporary Worship Team Leader Becky Warner asked herself.

The Hebrew instrument's blast came minutes before her friend of four years suddenly died, solidifying her conviction that God had chosen his time.

'For Mark, it was the shofar,' Warner said.

Yet eight days after his death, Warner still struggles to cope with the totality of her loss.

'It hasn't even begun for me,' she said.

For Marissa Phillips, Mark Phillips' wife, her faith has been crucial to coping.

'He died doing what he loved,' she said. 'I have no question about where he is.'

Approximately 45 high school students stood shocked to see their 6 foot, 270-pound leader crumple to the floor in agony. For them, the horn's blast became a vivid sign that 'God was control' - ironically, the mission's theme.

Flying to New Orleans, Phillips and 67 others had originally planned for the high schoolers to sing to young Katrina survivors at the trauma camp while the youth group's college students would gut houses and help revitalize the dispirited city of New Orleans.

Phillips traveled to New Orleans in January to determine the feasibility of the mission and had worked for months planning it out.

'This was his baby, his dream,' said Peter Mathiot, a University of Oregon freshman and Lake Oswego resident who worked on houses during the New Orleans mission trip.

Mrs. Phillips helped bolster Mark to fulfill his dream.

'I was his support person; I was his cheerleader,' she said.

Phillips had been the spiritual youth leader for more than a year at the Greater Commission Subcommit-tee, the name of Our Savior's youth group.

He had been a father figure to high schoolers, who in return dedicated a part of their summers to gain from Phillips' spiritual insight. He combined introspection with small group conversation to help the youth of his church gain a similar personal relationship as he had with God.

'He was always smiling,' Mathiot said. 'He was happiest celebrating Christ.'

Mathiot said Phillips was inspiring.

'His love for Christ was amazing, whenever you talked to him you could just tell,' he said. Plus, Mathiot said, 'any conversation you'd get into with him, you'd end up laughing.'

Although Mathiot wasn't there for Phillips' heart attack as he was cleaning wet insulation out of houses at the time, he knew Phillips was steadfast in his trust in God's plan, however tangled and confusing it may have seemed.

'If, at any moment, he was called back, he would be ready - nothing was holding him down, he knew where he was going, he wasn't worried,' Mathiot said.

Marissa's thoughts were similar.

'It's all part of the plan, I just wish the road map was a bit clearer.'

Phillips took the mission to Louisiana after hearing from religious leaders about diminishing aid in the region and a need for spiritual support.

Days later, standing behind a row of low-lying bleachers at the camp, his head resting on his hands, Phillips gazed at his youth group singing, smiling broadly under his thick moustache.

Phillips suddenly suffered a massive heart attack, a predisposed family trait that both his father and grandfather died of before the ages of 50.

Hearing Phillips collapse, the choir suddenly stopped, some thinking at first that he had fainted from the Louisiana humidity.

'For those of us who knew of his history, it was pretty clear that it was more serious,' Warner said.

The youth of the Lousiana mission trip decided to stay until last Saturday to finish the week as they believed it was what Phillips' would have wanted.

Phillips had flown the year before to Haiti in hopes of organizing a mission after the Louisiana trip to help the small island.

He spent 10 days in Haiti, once, according to Marissa, entering a village where no one had seen a white person before.

'Now that God knows we are here, help will come,' one child said to Phillips.

Upon returning, he began planning a mission to aid the Hatian people, whose country is the poorest in the Western Hemisphere.

But he had bigger plans than a short-term visit.

'We had planned within the next two years to move to Haiti, it had had a big impact on him,' Marissa said.

Yet his hopes were not fulfilled and eight days after his death, the 24th of June on the kitchen calendar in his Tualatin home still marks when he was to return.

'Daddy home,' it says, a smiley face next to it.

Marissa sits in the kitchen, struggling to keep herself composed, her son David, 8, running in and out of the kitchen kicking his miniature soccer ball, cooped up inside while 90-plus degree weather outside scorched his father's green offroading Rover.

In the kitchen, Marissa coped with mounds of funeral papers and media files spread out over her wooden table.

She nervously clicked her pen as she called a lieutenant colonel to 'pull rank' to obtain her husband's military file.

Her husband's military record had not been released as it still needed to be approved, which, Marissa feared, could mean delaying his military burial.

'I am his wife, why can't you disclose this information,' she said in a calm voice. 'I just wish you could tell me why.'

Her cellphone and home phone rang sporadically with calls from funeral homes, family, bowling buddies, and the military.

'All these details, he's the detail man - hello,' Marissa exclaimed.

Phillips was also an avid bowler, with one perfect career score of 300, bowling in national league championships and regional leagues for nine years. He was also a retired staff sergeant in the Air National Guard, organizing logistics for troop package dropping during the first Gulf War in 1993.

Marissa met Mark at a Japanese restaurant where he was bartending.

'His eyes were really bright,' she said. She found they were the same age and loved his humor and determination.

'He wanted to be better all the time,' Marissa said.

Marissa was raised in a Catholic family, Mark in a Lutheran. Yet both found Our Savior's Lutheran Church a welcoming community.

'The church became our family,' Marissa said, smiling.

Still wearing her diamond-encrusted wedding ring, Marissa has become a widow at 41. Yet she is not swayed by the hardships that lay ahead.

'I'll stay here as long as I can, I can't imagine leaving the church family,' she said, worried about how she'll pay for her Tualitan home where David has grown up.

For Marissa, it is her faith that has kept her from a breakdown.

'I don't know what I'll do but God will provide.'

'All I can do is keep (Mark) present for David,' she said, her eyes glistening, wiping tears. 'To provide the best for David, here, now, is what he would have wanted.'

A Mark Phillips Memorial Fund at any Sterling Savings Bank branch was created to be used for home maintanence for the Phillips' immediate future and for David's future in the form of a trust fund.

Services were held Wednesday at Our Savior's Lutheran Church in Lake Oswego.