DONNA, TEXAS — One of the two LDS missionaries hit by a vehicle and killed Tuesday night in Texas while riding their bicycles was scheduled to return home from his mission last week.
Elder Trevor Reinhold Strong, 21, of Taylorsville, had extended his two-year Spanish-speaking mission because he felt he still had work to do, said his stake president in Utah. A stake is made up of multiple congregations of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
"He chose to extend three weeks so he could help with the training of a couple of missionaries, as well as complete work with a couple of families," Kearns Utah Stake President Kevin Weber said. Weber is a long-time neighbor of Gordon and Deb Strong and their family. "His new return date was the Wednesday before Thanksgiving."
Also killed was Elder Derek Jason Walker, 20, of Fairfield, Idaho, who like Strong died of injuries sustained in what Texas law enforcement officials are calling a hit-and-run incident. A third missionary, Elder Zachary Todd Harris, 19, of Huntsville, Ala., was injured, but was treated at a nearby hospital and released.
Elder Strong's father, Gordon, spoke Sunday about his son's decision to extend his mission during his LDS congregation's fast and testimony meeting. Fast and testimony meetings are held on the first Sunday of each month in LDS congregations, called wards. Ward members have the opportunity to stand extemporaneously and express their faith. As a member of the ward bishopric, Gordon Strong conducted the meeting and shared his message of faith first.
"He was just loving his mission — just eating it up," Weber said of Elder Strong. "Yesterday, in fact, was a day of training with the mission president, and they had a great day. His mission president saw him then, and said he was in great spirits. He told me what a great missionary Trevor was — how much of a difference he made in the lives of the missionaries, the members and the people they were teaching."
Elder Strong's twin brother, Scott, will be returning home from his Spanish-speaking mission in Arizona in time for Trevor's funeral, Weber said.
"Trevor was a great, great young man — one of the best," Weber said. "I can't remember him ever being in trouble at church or at school or in the neighborhood. He was so excited to go on his mission, and he loved every minute of it. He chose to be there, even extending an additional three weeks. He was doing what he loved. He will be missed."
Those thoughts were echoed by others who knew him.
"He's an amazing kid and he would do anything to serve the Lord," said Brittany Harris, a close friend. "That's what his focus was in life."
"He was an awesome kid," said another friend, Shannon Carlson. "He was always happy, always there for you."
Jen Amitoelau knew Elder Strong as a missionary, having recently returned from the same Texas mission. "His name says it all," she said. "He was a strong missionary. He was pretty much a spiritual giant."
Texas Highway Patrol Trooper Johnny Hernandez said the missionaries were riding their bicycles northbound on Midway South Road in Donna, about 14 miles southeast of McAllen, Texas, not far from the Mexican border. They were struck head-on by a southbound vehicle, which investigators say was trying to pass another vehicle.
Hernandez said one of the missionaries died at the scene, while the other was pronounced dead at the hospital.
According to the police report of the incident, the vehicle was driven by Jose Luis Garza, 32, of Weslaco, Texas. Garza and two passengers immediately fled the scene after the collision because, the report says, "they were scared." The driver surrendered himself to authorities at the Progreso International Bridge, a port of entry that is less than 10 miles from the scene of the accident.
Police indicated that Garza told them he was having problems with his headlights, which he said kept flickering on and off. Garza has been arrested and charged on two counts of Accident Causing Injury or Death. The two passengers have also been questioned and released.
In Fairfield, Idaho, Walker's father said the family learned of the tragedy Tuesday night.
"He was a tremendous individual," said Jason Walker, Derek's father, on Wednesday. "He loved to smile, laugh and love life."
Jason Walker is president of the Fairfield Branch, a smaller LDS congregation. He said his heart also went out to the families of the other two missionaries involved in the accident.
Derek still had 10 months to go on his mission. He is survived by his father, his mother Cynthia Walker, two brothers and two sisters. He was the oldest of his siblings. One of his brothers is currently a freshman at BYU.
President Michael Owsley of the Wendell Idaho Stake said the Walker family moved to the Fairfield, Idaho, area just four years ago, and the family — especially Elder Walker — had already made a huge difference there.
"This young man was a wonderful example to the entire community," Owsley said. "He showed them what a great young LDS man should be."
Owsley also mentioned the special training the missionaries had participated in that day. "His mission president told me that Elder Walker had just been made senior companion, and he volunteered to make a presentation during the training, and that he did a great job with his presentation," Owsley said. "It doesn't surprise me to learn that he was a top-notch missionary. That's the kind of young man he was — absolutely top-notch."
Owsley said that while there are broken hearts in Fairfield today, there is also rejoicing in the faithful life of a great young man. "He loved football," Owsley said. "He loved bike-riding. He loved serving. He loved his mission. There are those here who are saying that he left this world doing the two of the things he loved most: riding his bike and serving the Lord."
The LDS Church issued the following statement: "Our thoughts and prayers are with the families of the missionaries involved in this tragic incident. We pray that they will be comforted as they mourn the loss of their loved ones, who served others selflessly as missionaries."
Contributing: Chris Moore, Sandra Yi and Tad Walch
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