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Whew, this is a sad one.
This week, an Instagram plea from a mom who is a prominent figure in an influential yet controversial Christian church has gone viral. Her request is both heartbreaking and horrifying: She is asking her church and believers across social media to pray for her child, who died suddenly over the weekend, to be raised from the dead. Her cry has reached other famous Christian influencers, who are spreading her word rapidly, and it’s become a huge movement that has taken over a corner of Instagram with hashtags and posts. Thousands of people are rallying around the idea that the power of prayer, and spreading it through social media, can literally “breathe life” back into a child.
Here’s what we know so far.
Earlier this week, Kalley Heiligenthal, a worship leader and singer at Bethel Church in Redding, California, shared on Instagram that her 2-year-old daughter, Olive, had died. She wrote that Olive had “stopped breathing” and was “pronounced dead by doctors” on Sunday.
Kalley wrote that she and her husband, Andrew, were asking her then-100,000 followers “for bold, unified prayers...to stand with us in belief that He will raise this little girl back to life.”
“Her time here is not done, and it is our time to believe boldly, and with confidence wield what King Jesus paid for. It’s time for her to come to life,” Kalley wrote.
Kalley and Andrew reportedly tried to revive their daughter when they discovered she stopped breathing on Dec. 14. Despite the use of lifesaving measures, the child was pronounced dead at a local hospital and transported to Shasta County Coroner's Office. The coroner’s office confirmed Olive’s death to BuzzFeed News and said it’s under investigation. The office said it planned for Olive’s body to be released to the mortuary on Thursday.
Kalley’s initial Instagram post went hugely viral, as did posts by her church. Bethel Church has a huge following on social media, due in part to its popular Christian albums. Its main account @bethel has 735,000 followers, and an account for its worship songs, @bethelmusic, has 1.5 million. Bethel’s songs have been streamed more than 100 million times on Spotify — including songs sung by Kalley herself. Justin Bieber is one of the worship music’s many fans. Despite its music’s popularity, Bethel’s interpretation of Christianity is controversial, as we outlined in a 2017 BuzzFeed News profile. Essentially, the church believes in faith healing, prophesying, and raising the dead, in ways that do not align with the mainstream Christian church.
In the days since Olive’s death, both Kalley and the church have continued to post on Instagram calling for others to join them in praying for her to be resurrected. “Day 3 is a really good day for resurrection,” Kalley wrote in a more recent Instagram post. “Thank you for your faith-filled declarations, keep them coming.” Worshippers have been praying for her resurrection at lively public gatherings at Bethel Church all week, and videos of the gatherings have been posted by several church members. Within a few days, Kalley’s account following more than doubled. She now has over 261,000 followers.
“This is awakening. Come alive, Olive!” Kalley wrote alongside a video she shared of one of the events.
The movement has attracted top Christian influencers, who are commenting and sharing their prayers, compounding its virality. Cool pastor influencers like Rich Wilkerson Jr., who has over 651,000 followers on Instagram, voiced his support, and popular worship leader Kari Jobe, who has 1.2 million followers, shared a post about Kalley and Olive.
In fact, many are posting their own viral pleas. The hashtag #WakeUpOlive was created. It’s even gone viral globally. A Christian school in Florida put up a real billboard with the hashtag, someone painted a beautiful tribute to the cause, and an interpretive dance was choreographed and performed in Olive’s name. People from all over the world have been sharing photos of their hands with Olive’s name written on them, as well as quotes and spiritual memes about the child.
People truly believe that a collective, online effort can resurrect Olive from the dead. It’s unclear though how many people who are reposting and commenting about the situation are aware of what is actually happening.
The momentum moved Bethel Church Pastor Bill Johnson to release an IGTV video explaining the church’s beliefs. In it, he uses several bible verses to back up the church’s belief in resurrection, stressing that the church is praying for Olive to come back to life because the family has explicitly asked them to.
In a statement to BuzzFeed News, the church said the parents requested a "miracle of resurrection" the same night of their daughter's death.
"The basis for [the resurrection] is modeled by Jesus in the New Testament of the Bible. Bethel Church believes in the accounts of healing and physical resurrection found in the Bible (Matthew 10:8), and that the miracles they portray are possible today," said Aaron Tesauro, the communications director of Bethel.
"As a church family, our hearts are with the Heiligenthals, and we are both praying for Olive and walking with them through their deep grief and sorrow," Tesauro added. "Bethel leadership is committed to caring for and serving the Heiligenthal family during this difficult time."
By Thursday, new kinds of comments started showing up and being upvoted on Kalley’s Instagrams. People began to urge Kalley and Andrew to accept that their daughter died and “isn’t coming back,” as one commenter put it. “Your daughter is with Jesus. She is more alive now than [she] has ever been,” another said. Many still expressed they were praying for the couple and stressed that they feel terrible for them. They worried about the impact the Instagram spectacle would have on the couple’s grief process, their family, and their older daughter.
People online have also been questioning a GoFundMe to raise $100,000 for “the unforeseeable expenses the Heiligenthal family will incur, medical and otherwise.” Tesauro later confirmed the fund was set up by friends and coworkers of the Heiligenthals, and all the money would be going directly to them.
After this newsletter was sent out and following a week of prayers for Olive's resurrection, her parents decided to move forward with a memorial service for the little girl.
"They are incredibly thankful for the prayers and support that the community has shown as they and thousands of people have been believing for a miracle," Tesauro said of the family. "We continue to stand with and support the Heiligenthal family through this time of loss."
Obviously, I feel terribly sorry for Olive’s parents in the wake of this horrible tragedy. We can’t judge a person for what they do in times of unimaginable grief. I reached out to them because I want to understand why they chose to start this movement so publicly and how they are working through this situation through social media. I also want to know what it all means. Should take all of this effort literally, or transcendently?
Check out my favorite pet account.
Like Tanya, all I have been able to think about this week is poor Olive and her sweet family. The situation is completely horrifying and sad. I wish them the best.
I don’t have a ton more to add this week. But with everything going on, it has been kind of a rough one.
So I am going to sign this off by giving you some joy and introducing you to my FAVORITE pet account on Instagram, Mr. Snax & Cleo & Skribbles (@mr.snax_cleopatra_skribbles).
My husband and I became obsessed with this account when it was about one exotic shorthair cat, Mr. Snax. Then they got another exotic shorthair named Cleopatra. THEN they got a French bulldog puppy named Skribbles. Honestly, they are living their best lives!