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Charlie the Fruitful Tree

Updated: Aug 1, 2023

by Ken DeBenedictis

Something broke in me the other day when my friend died. It was so jolting. There’s something about hearing of a sudden tragedy of someone close to you that freezes time. This was personal. He lives across the street from us so our families are super tight. I have four kids—he has ten. With all the kid-filled homes in our neighborhood, with all their limitless energy, his front lawn would always become center stage to the cars driving by. Some days it felt like an endless family birthday party over there. There would be Charlie, right in the middle of it—scrappin’ with his kids— throwing the ball around, little girls swirling around him practicing cartwheels or swinging on the rope swing. All that beautiful imagery got shaken up on Saturday morning when we received the news that while on an early morning bike ride, Charlie Criniere had been killed instantly by a hit and run driver.

It was one of those surreal moments in life—one that I didn’t want to believe, but because of the responsibilities of being a dad, I was forced to. After I told my family the news, we all raced across the street in our pajamas to be with the Criniere’s. This family who poured out so much to other people, and was so immeshed into our lives, had just had their whole world turned upside down in seconds.

Before we knew it, word started to spread and phones and texts came pouring in. We live in a prayerful community that lives to follow Jesus 24-7. Charlie had given all he had to worshipping Jesus and leading by example to everyone he met, a life fully committed and surrendered. By the time the media caught wind of the news, there was already an alerted local church community surrounding Meg and the kids. The headlines on my phone read “Cyclist killed by hit and run driver.” Something struck me as odd with that statement. He was so much more than a cyclist or just an innocent pedestrian who was a victim of a crime. Did people realize who this guy was?

As the day moved on, and more and more people dropping by, there were questions. “Why him? Why now?”, I’d hear people say. “Of all of the people for this to happen to…him??!!”. I think we all can relate. I can think of fifty people who this kind of thing would have been better suited. The deadbeat dad, the abusive husband, a pedophile, a serial rapist—but Charlie Criniere? Ultimate family man, step-in dad to those who had none, committed teacher to hundreds, faithful man of prayer… it just didn’t make any sense. How could Charlie’s life end like this?

As that blurry day came and went and ran into the next, more and more people came. Meg was surrounded by family and friends. There was so much love. Stories of Charlie filled the air. It seemed like I was getting to know a different Charlie from each person that shared. From his days growing up in Chicago with a troubled and violent past, to the moment he found Jesus who gave him a brand new life with purpose and passion. This man was living proof that no life is too far gone. He had found a reason to live life to its fullest and now wanted to spend the rest of it telling people his story. It was an honest story. One that he never grew tired of telling. As I look back on it now, and as much as I heard of it, I wish I had listened to it more.

As the memorial service was beginning, I noticed such an array of people from all walks of life. Kids he grew up with, relatives, fellow public school teachers, people who were up at 5am with him pacing back and forth in the Prayer Room, teenagers from his classrooms throughout the years, athletic coaches, hungry revivalists—they all had a story, they all had a memory. He impacted so many lives whether in a home group, a church setting or his chosen platform of the public schools.

Jesus said, that you can tell what kind of a tree it is by the fruit that it bears. As I looked around that sanctuary that day, I couldn’t help but notice all the beautiful fruit. His wife is a living example of the one personified in Proverbs 31. His children are all tenderhearted, thoughtful, honest, young ones who love Jesus and love people well. It says in Psalm 1, that “he shall be a like a tree planted by the rivers of water, that brings forth its fruit in season, whose leaf shall not wither and whatever he does shall prosper.”

As I ponder that scripture, I’m reminded of Charlie’s life. He planted himself by a river called a lifestyle of prayer and worship and allowed his roots to grow deep. That was the tree that you saw. It was a reflection of Jesus, the Tree of Life.

All that time he spent with his own kids, with his students, with people, and friends…all that giving of his time and of his money, and that attraction to the fatherless kids and to the juveniles. If you were one of the fortunate ones who knew him and are grieving now, you can take comfort in knowing that the seed he put in you was intentional. It will live if you allow it to. It is designed to grow and to produce something great. Because that’s what he saw in you—something great.

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