Bronx church mourns members lost in crash

State police investigate the scene of a fatal State police investigate the scene of a fatal accident 55 miles north of New York City. A passenger van carrying members of a church flipped over on the New York State Thruway on Saturday, killing at least six people and injuring eight others, authorities said. (Sept. 18, 2010) Photo Credit: AP

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Their arms held high in the air, their voices raised in songs of faith with an up-tempo Caribbean beat, members of a tiny Bronx church Sunday mourned their bishop, pastor and four members killed in an upstate crash.

The sounds reverberated on the street outside Joy Fellowship Christian Assemblies, a one-story brick storefront church on East Gun Hill Road, where more than 100 members gathered Sunday for a four-hour memorial service that celebrated the lives of the dead and reaffirmed their belief.

"God is a great God," the congregation sang.

The congregation's bishop and founder, Simon White, and its pastor, Titus McGhie, were killed Saturday afternoon on the New York State Thruway after a rear tire on their van failed, causing the vehicle, filled with 14 church members, to careen out of control and flip over several times. Also killed were White's wife, Zelda, and three lay members - Elaine Reid, Avrial Murray and Evelyn Ferguson.

Eight other church members were seriously injured in the crash near Woodbury - about 55 miles north of New York City - and were recovering in hospitals Sunday night, authorities said.

Sgt. Lawrence White of the Newburgh State Police barrack, said authorities were investigating whether anyone in the van was wearing a seat belt. He said the passengers in back were not belted in, but it was unclear whether the driver, Bernard Lattibuediere, 52, who was injured, and Simon White had seat belts on.

Sunday's service forced church members to step forward to hold the congregation of mostly Jamaicans and Jamaican-Americans together in the absence of their longtime leaders.

"We're a family, and we want to keep it that way," said Katherine Lawrence, who as the congregation's evangelist, will take over as the church leader. "I just have to do it. Who else is going to take over?"

Of the hopeful music, Lawrence said: "What you are seeing is pain under powder [makeup]."

The congregants were heading to a church banquet Saturday in Schenectady for an affiliated church, the First Light Christian Assemblies, where the loss was also felt heavily. That church's bishop, Robert Reid, lost his mother, Elaine Reid, in the crash, as well as the Whites, his aunt and uncle.

Simon White, 55, was recalled as a stalwart in the community who founded the church in the 1980s after emigrating from Jamaica, where he was a police officer. He spent hours preaching on FM radio stations and helped others launch their own congregations in surrounding neighborhoods, mourners said.

"Simon White is my mentor," the Rev. Carlene Francis, of Mount Vernon, told congregants Sunday. She said White helped her found her church in Mount Vernon 15 years ago. "He is the fountain, amen. He is the strong back of this ministry, amen."

White's radio show often served as a preview of what he would say in person at 10 a.m. each Sunday. His sermons drew Daisy Chang each week from her home in Stroudsburg, Pa.

"He was a leader that you would want to have in your life," said Chang, a nurse. "He just loved unconditionally. It didn't matter who you are or where you came from. It was just love, love, love."

Ewan Peart, 55, of the Bronx, called White, his boyhood friend, "one of a kind.

"He had the chemistry it takes to pull a church together," Peart said. "You would say he was a man of God."

With Patrick Whittle

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