It’s been just over a week since getting the news that a dear friend of mine passed away after a year-long battle with cancer. Danielle (Tschirky) Montiel was my age, with kids roughly the same age as ours. Yesterday, those who knew her gathered together to celebrate her life and mourn their loss. Given that I am on the other side of the world right now, I wanted to share a few words both to honor her and to give some kind of expression to my own journey as I grieve the loss of a friend.
It’s tough to lose anyone in your life, to know that they are gone and the opportunity to connect one more time gone with them. It is even tougher to lose someone who holds a special place in your heart and life.
She was a significant person in my life at a significant time. We were both from Long Beach but did not meet until we both arrived at UCLA in fall of ’93. Through her and a special group of friends during those years, I was shaped in immeasurable ways.
Danielle had a unique role in my development during those years. She was a kindred spirit in some memorable ways. She had big dreams and vision, was passionate, loyal, and long-suffering. She also had qualities that weren’t as natural for me at the time – she was gentle, kind, curious, and full of joy. As I explored my identity and emerging calling with intensity, seriousness, and deep inner reflection, she consistently pulled me outward to see, appreciate, and recognize the beauty and wonder that I so often missed. At the time, there were so many things I was trying to get “right,” but she was a key guiding light that pointed to a place of rest and enjoyment of life.
Beyond our four years together at UCLA, we spent every summer of our college years serving together. After our freshman year we spent the summer in East Asia together with many from our UCLA tribe. The next summer we served together in the inner-city of Los Angeles, where we experienced our first taste of team and ministry leadership while learning about different contexts and cultures.
But the summer I remember most with her was the summer before our senior year of college when we helped re-launch the college ministry of Arbor Road Church together. It was through the joy of serving and leading together – experiencing the beauty, possibilities, and power of ministry in people’s lives, that I sensed a call to ministry. Ministry as a responsibility, duty, or burden was replaced by something deeper and so much more meaningful. As a person prone to discouragement, disillusionment, and seriousness, I do not believe I would have entered the ministry without that shift. I know for certain that even if I had, I wouldn’t have lasted. She helped me see that ministry was not something to be achieved, but something to live and enjoy.
As life took us on our separate paths I did not see her frequently after college, but we kept in touch. The topic of our interaction in most recent years was what she was doing helping pioneer a charter middle school with a virtue-based curriculum. As my ministry took an unforeseen shift about 5 years ago into an educational context, I wanted to pick her brain when I could. I saw her passion for education in college, but it was amazing to see it materialize into a concrete vision. And I was amazed that as the topic of virtue-based leadership development has come up in the course of my ministry in Manila, I’ve even had someone mention to me that “there’s this school somewhere in Southern California that is doing some cool things that you should check out.”
It’s hard to reconcile the loss of anyone important in our lives, but it’s even harder to reconcile the loss of someone that really knew you. She gave me the gift of being known time and time again during those formative years and it’s a gift that kept on giving in the years since.
Danielle knew me, at times better than I knew myself and better than many in my life. She affirmed things about me that at the time most people including myself maybe weren’t sure were even there. But those things began to emerge over time. She either knew me that well or had the gift of being able to speak some of those things into existence through warm encouragement and confident vision. This would be a gift for everyone, but as a deep-thinking, culture-challenging, justice-seeking, truth-teller like myself who has routinely been misunderstood and at times judged for it, it’s a grace that helped guard my heart against darkness and point me towards a vision of what could be.
In the moments I get to see and celebrate any impact I may be making, she saw it first. You can’t put a price on friends like that.
This summer she gave me one more gift. I was back in Long Beach just for a few days and we were trying to find a way to see each other, but it it was getting complicated with schedules and commitments. But she spontaneously visited on one of our last afternoons before leaving the country. We spent some time catching up on her journey – the struggles, her hopes, and her fears. She graciously shared with me the details she had to re-count no doubt hundreds of times. But mostly, I think we just enjoyed the moment of presence, which was a gift we have not been able to enjoy as much in recent years.
Danielle was relentlessly positive and hopeful, but as I was leaving the country for at least another year I have wondered if she was giving me one last gift. While I prayed faithfully for her complete healing and restoration, I was still mindful that I might be saying goodbye. And that brief encounter has meant the world to me since. It’s one of the moments I get to remember her by – where more was said than words spoken and where the fears of the unknown were briefly alleviated through the presence of the familiar.
I told her that day that the world is so, so much better with her in it. And I was right. I rejoice that hers was a life well lived and mourn for the many, especially her family and children, that must find a way to do life without her physical presence. Please join me in praying for them in their grief.
If you read through this, thank you. It’s a needed part of my own process as I grieve in geographic isolation. I’m grateful for some friends who have kept me updated on the events of the past couple weeks and have passed on some old pictures. The majority of my days spent with Danielle were before cell phones and digital cameras so the majority of my photos and memories are in a storage unit in California.
I’m thankful to have had such a person in my life and to have had so many memories and moments that resulted in life change and impact. I am thankful her suffering is at an end and she has received the object of her faith. Her example of faith, love, and vulnerability all the way to the very end inspires me to keep aspiring to the picture of graciousness and care that so many experienced from her.