MARIETTA, Ga. — Apostle Aron Amazonas stood in front of his congregation members and tried to soothe their hearts.
"It's important for us to cry for them," he said Sunday. "We're having our time of mourning. But not everything died."
While he spoke, the members of the International Church of the Restoration clutched tissues and patted their eyes. Some wore braces from still-healing injuries.
For this church, there are some wounds that doctors just can't heal.
A week ago Sunday, the 120-member Brazilian church lost five cherished members in an Interstate 75 crash in Gainesville. Smoke from a Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park brush fire blinded drivers and 11 lives were lost. At least 20 went to the hospital.
Since then, the congregation has been coming to terms with concepts of life, death and faith. In a town where even fast-food restaurants play Christian rock, people turn to the church first — to seek healing and understanding, even if the answers don't ever seem to come.
"The Bible says our natural mind can't understand the hand of God," the head pastor said. "The Bible says there is a season to be born, and a season to die ... a season to laugh, and a season to cry."
A woman sobbed quietly. Another woman furrowed her brow and prayed.
Joilson Lima, 34-year-old youth pastor and a survivor of the wrecks, squeezed another church member's hand when she put it on his shoulder. He wore a neck brace and a look of silent grief.
"They can't come back to us anymore," the pastor continued, pointing to the ceiling. "But, one day, we will meet them."
* * *
The night of the accident, before they left Orlando, Aron Amazonas wished the Carmos a safe drive. He prayed over his second family, asking God to lead them safely home.
He wrapped his arms around Jose Carmo Jr., his next-door neighbor and fellow pastor, and said goodbye to the rest of the family: Adriana Carmo, Jose's wife, and 17-year-old Leticia Carmo, the couple's elder daughter.
The younger Carmo daughter, 15-year-old Lidiane, wandered the halls and missed the prayer.
Amazonas looked into their faces and bid Jose, Adriana and Leticia goodbye for the last time. Then they left. The drive from the Christian conference in Orlando to Cobb County, Ga., would take all night.
Jose wanted to get back to the church in Marietta, Ga. He didn't want to let his members down by missing the Sunday service.
As the church's two vans cruised down Interstate 75 on Jan. 29, the fatigued passengers were rocked to sleep by a slight sway. The smoke from a prairie fire blinded the drivers.
It was 4 a.m. as they entered the darkest week their church has known. A church speaker would later call it the church's valley of shadows on the way to green pastures.
Up ahead, a chain reaction of wreck after wreck started.
Their van slammed into a semitrailer, killing Jose, Adriana, Leticia and two other church members: Edson Carmo, Jose's brother, and Roselia DeSilva, Edson's girlfriend.
David Pimentel, a 31-year-old church member who survived a crash in the second van, said he rushed to Jose's van to see if they were OK.
He could only see half of a foot in front of him. The injured limped along the highway.
He looked in the van and saw the dead.
David grabbed a nearby emergency worker and shouted, "Just come here. We have someone alive."
As workers pried the van open with the Jaws of Life, they saw Lidiane sprawled on top of her parents' bodies.
"Leticia," Lidiane moaned. "Leticia. Leticia. Leticia."
* * *
Sitting in Jose's office, Aron told the story of how the Carmos met. The first time Jose saw Adriana, he told her he was going to marry her.
"You're crazy," she told him. "Who are you? I don't know you."
The smitten young man looked at her and said he would visit daily until he won her over.
He charmed her parents and slowly stole the shy girl's heart.
They were married in Goiania, Brazil. A Christian upbringing and a father in the clergy led Jose to become a pastor.
Their home was soon filled with the laughter of their two daughters.
They came to Georgia in 1999 to work in a series of small churches. Jose started his own flooring business, but he gave that up because he felt God was calling him.
Five years ago, Aron moved from Miami to Kennesaw, Ga. He said Jose was more than willing to help him move into his new home.
The house next door was up for sale. They decided to become neighbors.
Leticia started to bond with the Amazonas family. She would come home from Sprayberry High School, drop off her backpack and make a beeline for the Amazonas home.
She'd spill out her heart to Aron, who helped her deal with boy drama and future college concerns. At some point, she started calling him "second Daddy."
She wanted to be a model, a singer, a doctor — she envisioned a full, exciting life. She took cosmetology classes and begged to have photos taken of her. The Amazonas family's camera is full of her portraits.
"The thing that hurts in my heart for her," Aron said, "is that she was so young, and she had so many dreams."
Lidiane takes after her mother and doesn't thrive off attention like her sister did. Aron said he's worried about how she'll deal with the TV cameras and media interviews that will inevitably come her way.
When any Sunday service ended and Leticia headed to the Amazonas' home, Lidiane would go home to her parents.
"I felt a deep pain in my heart for her because I know how close she was to her parents," Aron said.
After Lidiane was taken to Shands at UF, she slipped into a coma. Her ribs and arm were broken. Her liver and lungs were badly damaged. There was internal bleeding.
Aron said the doctor told him that after the accident, her condition wasn't looking good.
"She's very bad," he said the doctor told him. "If she doesn't react in two hours, she'll pass away."
Aron rallied his congregation and called their mother church in Brazil. Soon, thousands of people were praying. They needed a miracle.
She woke up Monday morning looking for her sister.
* * *
Jose's brother, 38-year-old Edson Carmo, came back to the job and people he loved before he died in the crash.
The gregarious man reconnected with his brother and was attending the church. He'd been there for less than a year after moving to Georgia from Florida.
He was in a relationship with Roselia DeSilva, 41, and loved his children, 17-year-old Jessika Carmo and 13-year-old Jefferson Carmo. Now that their dad is gone, their mom is taking care of them.
"Daddy I always thought we would be together forever," Jessika wrote on her dad's Facebook wall Wednesday. "You always told me if I needed anything to just call you and you would be there for me. Now is the time that I need you the most so I can try to understand why? I hope I made you proud enough while you were still here and I hope you know how empty I feel and how much I miss you."
Aron said Edson had a way of bringing life into a room.
"Wherever Edson was, we were always laughing," he said.
He had been a truck driver since he was a teenager, and he was making plans to return to that life.
Before he left for the conference, he'd packed a suitcase with everything needed for a truck trip across the U.S. with Roselia.
All he had to do was get back to Georgia, grab his bag and hit the road.
Church members found his suitcase after the accident.
"Daddy I miss you," Jessika wrote Saturday.
* * *
A week after her loss, Lidiane is being cared for by her uncle, Fabio Souza, who treated her and Leticia like they were his own.
Lidiane remained tucked into a Shands hospital bed, her aunt watching over her, while her uncle traveled to Georgia Sunday to tell her church that she's OK.
Aron said she is conscious and knows who she is. In the coming months, she'll learn who she must become to deal with this loss, he said.
While Lidiane rests safely in her hospital bed, her uncle is working to help untangle a web of immigration issues.
The Carmo family's visas have expired. For a few days last week, the church was worried Lidiane, who has lived in Georgia since she was 2 years old, would be deported to Brazil.
But Aron wants Lidiane to come home to her uncle, aunt, classmates and, most important, her second family.
During the service, the congregation sang about love.
"He is jealous for me," they sang. "Loves like a hurricane. I am a tree. Bending beneath the weight of His wind and mercy."
During his sermon, Aron said God will use the church's pain to plant a seed, which will grow and blossom into great plans.
"We're going to look into the future God has. The best God has is yet to come," he said. "We're going to look at Lidiane and we're going to know that God has the greatest project that's left in our lives."
Aron said it will cost $51,000 to ship the bodies from Florida to Marietta, Ga., for a memorial service and then to Brazil for a family burial.
Sunday morning, exactly a week after the accidents, the marred section of I-75 is slowly being repaired, the injured are returning home and investigations into the deaths loom.
The church, too, will heal with time.
"The services in the church will go on," the pastor told the congregation. "Everything will go on."
The song continued: "If grace is an ocean, we're all sinking."
While Lidiane rested and her church grieved, a downpour blanketed this small Southern town, as if watering the seeds left behind.
* * *
To donate to the Carmo family funeral fund, visit any Bank of America and donate to account number 334036157634.