The room is quiet. Fifty or so young people sit on folding metal chairs, their bodies still, all eyes turned to the man on stage.
Their pastor, Nick Williamson, is giving the Sunday morning sermon. But it is the slight crack in his voice—that sudden hint of vulnerability—that brings the room to silence.
“I’ve got to be honest about something,” says the 24-year-old, who took over in July as the high school youth pastor at Manhattan Beach’s Journey of Faith church. “I’m not feeling it today.”
He continues, his words coming quickly: ”I’m not feeling it because today is a really special day for me and my family. We’re celebrating my older brother’s birthday. But it’s really hard to celebrate someone’s birthday when he’s not here anymore.”
It’s been 11 years since Nick’s big brother Cody, a Redondo Union High School junior and the oldest of four children, was struck and killed by a motorcycle while crossing Aviation Boulevard in Redondo Beach.
For Nick and his family—parents William and Silvia Williamson as well as younger siblings Kristina and Joshua—it has been a journey of loss, grief and resilience.
But for Nick, it was also a beginning. A tragic, horrible beginning, but a start, just the same.
“When my older brother passed away, I felt like I needed something,” he said. “I was so empty. I was just searching for everything . . . I was so broken.”
Those dark days, they began with a phone call.
It was April of 2008. Nick remembers answering the phone and hearing Cody’s friend on the line saying, “Nick, give the phone to your dad.’”
Cody, out for a pizza run, had been hit by a motorcycle crossing the street outside Papa Guido’s on Aviation Boulevard. According to reports, he had walked out from between two cars, and then tried to dart back. The motorcyclist was found not to be at fault.
“I remember it like it was yesterday,” said Nick, who had rushed to the scene along with his parents. “I remember hearing a paramedic say, ‘His leg is broken,’ and I was like, ‘Oh, that’s OK. That’s not bad. He’ll be OK.’”
“But it really took a turn when my mom looked at me and said, ‘You better go call everyone and pray right now.’”
He did—and they did. But Cody died the next morning at Harbor UCLA hospital.
Naturally, Nick asked the questions: “Why? Why my brother? Why my family?”
He hadn’t been very religious—the Redondo Beach family went to church only on holidays, he said—but he still expected his prayers to be answered that night. He expected his brother to live.
“I was like, ‘God, I prayed. Why would you do this to me?’”
More than 600 people turned up for the service to mourn the brown-eyed boy with the infectious smile, the boy who loved ice hockey and the beach, body boarding and lacrosse.
It was a grim time for the family, with his mother saying she almost wanted to “join her son in heaven.”
“I literally did not want to live anymore,” Silvia Williamson said.
But things began to change when classmate, Hannah Vorndran, invited Nick to try out the youth group at Journey of Faith. He was 13.
Vorndran, now 24, remembers wanting to help.
“I just felt like he needed people around him,” said Vorndran, who was in eighth grade when she first brought Nick to the youth group. “He just needed that support and community.”
It worked. Nick said it was that community that gave him strength. He and his family started attending services regularly. And that, in turn, inspired him to eventually become a pastor.
Vorndran, who works as a nurse at Little Company of Mary, said when Nick told her in college of his decision to be a minister, it just made sense.
“I never thought that the 13 year old that I brought to the youth group back then would turn into the man speaking to the same youth group we grew up in," Vorndran said. "It is just full circle.”
A new life
But it wasn’t a straight path. Initially, Nick pursued a career in finance, first attending the University of Arizona; then Liberty University, a Christian college in Virginia.
During his senior year, he interned at Raytheon, where he was offered a job after graduation.
He turned it down.
“I just told them that I had this passion and I had to pursue it,” he said.
Nick had stayed connected with the church during the summer, working as a camp counselor to middle school kids and volunteering—including several mission trips to Mexicali—whenever he could.
He completed the last few credits for his finance degree at El Camino College, just so he could come back to the South Bay to intern at the church.
In 2017, he was hired to lead the middle school youth group at the Torrance campus. Then, when the Manhattan Beach youth pastor stepped down, he was asked to lead the high school youth group there.
“One of the things that really stands out with Nick is he’s really a strategic thinker,” said Journey of Faith lead pastor Jason Cusick. “He tends to look further down the road than the immediate. I think we all need that, especially our young people.”
In some ways, Nick still seems like a kid himself. He wears untucked T-shirts and blue jeans during services. He greets his teenage congregants with big hugs and open smiles. He connects with kids on things like social media and homework, high school and friends.
And, if the crowd of teens circling around him on a recent Sunday is any indication, the kids love him.
“I was kind of drifting away with the previous pastor,” said Mira Costa senior Brooke Honnette. “But when Nick took over I was just back in it because he is so great and I can tell that he really, really cares about us.”
Mira Costa Junior Jack Coons called Nick’s story “inspiring.”
“To see him to go through that situation at such a young age—losing his older brother—and out of nowhere he wants to lead a ministry,” Coons said. “It inspires me to want to do something like that.”
When asked whether Cody’s death happened for a reason, Nick is stumped.
“I don’t think that I’ll ever be able to say with full confidence that, ‘This is why that happened,’” he said. “But I think the greatest part of the story is how God can use tragedy like that.”
His mother, who still mourns the loss of her oldest son, agrees.
"I’m so proud of Nickolas. He was born to be a pastor," said Silvia Williamson, who still lives in Redondo Beach. "He’s just doing amazing things and that would not have happened [if Cody hadn't died]. I really think that was the starting point of how God came into his life. . . . Maybe it was the plan."