Tragedy forges a love to last for Manchester couple

 

By Times Contributor, Janet Galyen On a warm September afternoon, 14 years ago, sunbeams broke through towering trees and spilled onto a private college campus in Southern Indiana. It was lunchtime. Hungry undergrads flooded the eateries and rendered the sidewalks picturesque and peaceful. It is hard to imagine this scene would be the setting for a bloody crime. But one person would interrupt the calm with absolute terror. Sarah, a freshman, was struggling to compose one of her first English papers. She enlisted the editorial assistance of a senior acquaintance, Tom Fuhrman, and the two agreed to meet during lunch at a campus gathering area called The Point. As planned, Sarah settled herself onto a lone bench to wait for Tom. Having developed a slight affection for Sarah, Tom arrived in good-humor bearing gifts: an aloe vera plant, to be specific, because he thought she might need it to heal her wounds after he edited her paper. The pair promptly got to work. Before too long, though, Tom needed a restroom break and excused himself into the English Hall nearby. Little did he know that as he walked away that the life of this girl who had captured his interest was about to be utterly devastated. As Sarah sat all alone, a 6-foot-2 someone appeared suddenly and seized her from behind. He grabbed her throat with force, attempting to strangle her. He struck her numerous times on the head with a large, heavy landscaping stone. “He beat me so hard,” Sarah recalls the horror, “that the stone cracked in two pieces. Once I was unconscious, he dragged me face down over rocks and tree roots for nearly 200 feet into a nearby wooded embankment that led down to the Ohio River.” The intent was nothing short of evil. Stunningly, however, slight Sarah—who was 5-foot-7 and barely weighed 115 pounds—fought back from her lifeless state. “I thrashed at him with all the strength that God gave me,” she said. Fighting with the intensity to save her life, Sarah injured her attacker so badly that he could hardly stand or walk, she recalls. He abandoned his assault and escaped. Although it has been 14 years, Tom vividly remembers his shocking return from the restroom. “I found the aloe vera plant spilled all over the ground, as well as her books strewn about.” And then he heard her. He heard moaning and he saw Sarah covered in blood – a scene forever seared into Tom’s memory. Sarah is thoughtful of the moment Tom rushed to her side. “There was so much blood. From the beating to my head, all I could see were light and dark variations. I knew I was very badly injured and knew I might not make it, but I felt calm. While Tom used his T-shirt to try to stop my bleeding, I asked him to ‘Please tell my parents that I am going to be OK. Christ is with me.’” Tom flagged down one of his friends driving by and used her cell phone to call 911. Emergency responders were quickly on the scene to join Tom in his lifesaving efforts; to aide him in this sudden tragedy that would forever alter the course of both his and Sarah’s life. Sarah suffered multiple concussions and contusions, persistent brain swelling, and lacerations covered her head, face, spine and hips. She also sustained deep neck bruising, broken ribs, and temporary loss of sight. “I usually just say ‘I was a bloody mess,’” says Sarah in her characteristically sweet yet blunt personality. “I could have easily been impaired for the rest of my life. I praise God’s sovereign will and choice to protect me.” Someone else now praising God is Tom. At the time of the attack, Tom was a philosophy major and a professed agnostic who had claimed himself omni-religious, drawing his ideology from a blend of religions. But, God’s providential appointment of Tom’s role in Sarah’s trauma shattered his unbelief. He watched as Sarah’s faith in the goodness of God was unshaken. And, he watched as she and her parents stunningly determined to forgive the man who had attacked her. “Those hospital visits were very uncomfortable,” recalls Tom.  “I was compelled to visit, but I was deeply challenged by Sarah’s faith-in-action.” Despite the magnitude of her injuries, Sarah’s hospital stay was amazingly brief. She was able to leave the hospital in a wheelchair after only a few days. Soon thereafter, “the spirit of God made an appointment with Tom’s soul,” according to Sarah. “When everything fell apart and Tom watched my family and me recover from this evil, he really did fall in love with Christ. He saw that there was something much bigger going on. It was October of 2000 when he trusted Christ.” Tom and Sarah shared that salvation experience together—back on campus at The Point, where Tom vividly recalls the surrender of his soul to Jesus Christ. Not only were hearts turning to Jesus, but also to one another. In made-for-TV-movie fashion, Tom and Sarah were discovering an affection forged by fire. What had begun as a simple English tutoring session was gaining the momentum of love. Their now common bond of Christ drew Tom to Sarah more than ever before. Likewise, Sarah’s heart was pulled toward Tom; grateful for his faithful friendship and burdened for him as he had to endure the weight of actually being investigated as a suspect in the attack. But despite their fondness for one another, Tom and Sarah chose to depart in separate directions. They both recognized a need to establish stronger relationships with Christ before they could ever truly pursue a meaningful relationship with one another.   Forgiveness and justice   Tom was eventually cleared of all suspicion, and Sarah undertook the daunting task of appearing in court to testify against her actual attacker. Incredibly, authorities were able to identify and arrest him based upon Sarah’s one and only recollection: his red tennis shoes. The court drama “is a very long story” according to Sarah; a story that beautifully includes both forgiveness and justice. Sarah chose to elevate concern for her attacker’s eternal welfare above her anger at the horrible wrong he had committed against her. Sarah was asked to prepare a victim’s statement that she would read as part of the court proceedings. The statement was to include details of how her life would be forever affected because of the assault. Rather than composing such facts, however, Sarah chose simply to affirm that the incident had happened and then to present the gospel to the perpetrator. Rather than allow fury and pity to consume her heart, she clearly and calmly told him that she forgave him in the same manner that Christ had forgiven her. “I wanted him to experience the same freedom and forgiveness that Jesus had extended to me on the cross.” Sadly, Sarah feels that his reaction appeared “minimal.” In March of 2001, he was sentenced to 36 years in prison.   Love forged by fire   Not long after the court process was behind her, wedding bells began to ring. A healthy, happy Sarah became Tom Fuhrman’s wife just 17 months after the attack. Today, Sarah genuinely and remarkably rejoices in the whole, awful ordeal because of the good it has produced. She is glad that the mighty hand of God allowed her to suffer and refined her through it. She agrees with Psalm 119:71 — that “it was good for me to be afflicted so that I might learn your decrees.” Tom and Sarah have never faltered in their confidence that God’s hand has been in their suffering. They know that God accomplishes great purpose through pain, and they share this truth with all who will hear through 1 Peter 1 6-7: “Now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. These have come so that your faith … may be proved genuine and may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed.” The Fuhrmans’ faith has indeed proven genuine. And this horrific trial that they shared over 14 years ago has served well to strengthen their faith for additional hardships that have come. They were surprised by a daughter, Samantha, who was conceived soon after marriage, born prematurely, and rushed to intensive care. Samantha was on life support for days before the doctors found the cause of her illness. Lung surgery would be necessary to save her life. She received the surgery, God carried them all through it, and “Sam” is a beautiful girl today. Additionally, the Fuhrmans have opened their hearts and their home to foster parenting. To date, they have welcomed the joys and endured the sorrows of 10 foster children.  As a bright spot in the heart-aching task, they were overjoyed to adopt a beautiful foster daughter into their family this past spring. As one would expect, all are warmly welcomed at the Fuhrman home. It is a home that causes one to feel inspired and lightened. Inspired—by the presence of God that radiates through lovely conversation and scriptures written on chalkboards. Lightened—by the charming imperfection of toys scattered on the floor, little feet learning to walk, and sentimental touches here and there.   A bent journey   Where Sarah was once a college student with her sights set on a communications major, the evil thrust upon her bent her journey. It bent her journey toward Tom Fuhrman, toward motherhood, toward a lifestyle of ministry and toward understanding that these most important roles must command her priority. From a heart deeply humble and grateful to be alive, Sarah spends each day pouring the love of Christ into the lives of those around her. Where once Tom was proud of his intellect and his unbelief, the evil into which he was swept bent his journey, too. It bent his journey toward Jesus, toward Sarah, toward fatherhood, and toward a career in public education. Tom serves as the principal of Westwood Elementary. Though he couldn’t have imagined it in his college days, his life is now characterized by love. Love for his wife, love for his children, love for his coworkers, and love for his students — several of which he has welcomed into his home as foster children. What can be said about a story so exceptional? For Tom and Sarah, the answer to that question is easy: “Glory be to God.” The Fuhrmans are adamant that their story is not a hero’s tale. They claim no strength, no goodness and no ability apart from what the grace of God has produced in their lives. “We do not want to sound like spiritual achievers. We still struggle in the flesh, and God is still working on us. We are beggars looking for the next crumb.”