A life of courage and faith...family and friends hold celebration in memory of Joshua Martin
They came to praise Joshua Martin, not to bury him. The inspirational Donaghadee teenager who succumbed to cancer on Monday was buried at a private family ceremony yesterday morning, but around 1,200 people of all ages later gathered at Bangor Elim church for a celebration of his life.
It took almost an hour for the congregation to file into the grey-clad church set incongruously in an industrial estate on the outskirts of the Co Down town. Once inside, they heard from Joshua's friends, his school principal, a tribute from one of the medical team which treated him for his cancer over the past two years, and, most poignantly of all, from his parents Tim and Kim.
While there were tears, there was more laughter, as the life and times of Joshua were recalled.
And his mum, a civil servant, told the gathering of the indomitable spirit of her son, how even after all his illness and debilitating treatment, he had still focused on his school work. Just this week they learned that he had gained an A grade in his GCSE English paper. Kim raised a laugh when she recalled how Joshua loved McDonalds so much that he even wrote about the fast food outlet in his exam.
The couple, who have another son, David, showed remarkable courage and composure to address the congregation which included Chief Constable George Hamilton, watched by other close family members so soon after coming from the Carrowdore graveside. Kim pledged that she would not shed a tear during her address and stuck to her word as she recounted her memories of a boy whose plight touched hearts around the world after the family launched a #prayforjosh petition on the internet after his initial gloomy diagnosis.
Joshua had been admitted to hospital on Christmas Eve 2014 with suspected appendicitis.
But medics had much worse news for the family. He was suffering from a rare cancer - so rare his father Tim told the congregation that there could be no cure. Initially they were told that Joshua had perhaps two to three weeks to live without treatment, maybe a few months with it.
Tim, who is a pastor at the Elim church, said the power of prayer - along with the skill of the medical teams treating him - had instead given Joshua more than two years of additional life. Indeed, he recovered so well from initial treatment that the cancer seemed to have disappeared and Joshua was able to enjoy skiing holidays - where he clocked more than 80 kilometres an hour on one mountain run - and enjoy a holiday in American riding some of the biggest roller-coasters there.
Tim added: "I am thankful for this last year when I was Joshua's friend, his chum and his messer".
Kim, in her tribute which included short videos of Joshua behaving like any other teenager, said: "As parents we had always prayed that we would leave our children a rich spiritual heritage, but I realised this week that Joshua had done that for us".
She recalled how Joshua loved extreme sports and was even training in the gym a couple of weeks before his death, in preparation for another skiing trip. She also remembered how the teenager had once taken the wheel of a Land-Rover and driven up a mountain "with us praying in the back seat".
It was revealed that Joshua had wanted the celebration of his life to be a joyful one and the ceremony included a playlist of his favourite songs, as well as montages of family photographs shown on a huge screen at the front of the auditorium. It also featured inspirational, if lesser known, spiritual songs performed by the church youth group and a video of tributes from his five best friends, The Thessalonian Five, shot at the seashore where they used to gather.
In a tribute sent to the service, Dr Robert Johnston, who treated Joshua, recalled how he had always been so well mannered during treatment and was determined to move on with his life and had grown and matured into an impressive young man who made an impact on all who came in contact with him.
"I daily feel the privilege of having met him. Thanks Joshua. Rest easy," he added.
There was praise for the NI Children's Hospice where Joshua spent his last week and the family asked that donations be given to the hospice in his memory. Collectors were on hand as the congregation left the church.
Darren, one of Joshua's best friends, told the gathering: "His life was taken away from us far too soon and it is hard to understand why tragic things happen to good people. Joshua had an inner strength which could have powered the world if we could have harnessed it and and he had courage beyond anyone I have ever met. He always looked forward and never dwelt on the past. He was a true inspiration".
Mrs Elizabeth Huddleson, principal of Bangor Grammar School where Joshua was a pupil, recalled his infectious humour. On his first return to school after his initial treatment she was shocked at his frail appearance as he was wheeled into her office to greet some of his friends. "As soon as he was settled he told me and his dad that we could now leave. In effect I was ordered out of my own office, but with unfailing good manners". He told her personally when the cancer returned. "He came in said 'it has returned, treatment starts again and there you have it'.
"I was stunned. He made it clear to me that he had God with him and he had nothing to fear".
She added: "Bangor Grammar School is the better place for having had Joshua Martin as a pupil. The impact he made on pupils, staff, parents and people across the world was phenomenal for a 15-year-old. His life may have been short, but he embraced it with bravery and belief".
The church's senior pastor Gary Beattie, clearly emotional, recalled being on the trip to America with Joshua and his family and how the boy had been able to jump the three-hour queue for one ride with a special fast pass. "I hate queuing but I wasn't impressed by his pass as much as his courage, but most of all his faith, which was way beyond his years."
On the order of service was a reading from Psalm 139, part of which read: "all the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be". Sadly for his family, those days were all too short.