By Pastor Jim Parker
Bethany Baptist Church Toronto
Over 100 youth and parents came into the church on a Monday in January. They came with birthday cards, flowers, and an upbeat spirit. They came to eat, laugh, listen to music, and enjoy one another’s company on the special day of their friend. They came to talk with and hug Stephanie, their friend’s mom, on his special day. Their friend was Isaiah Witt. And on that Monday in January, Isaiah would have turned sixteen. Would have.
It was a Saturday around Thanksgiving last year, when I went over to Malachi’s home. Malachi had been in the park when his friend, Isaiah, was fatally stabbed. We knew Isaiah—he had been a regular in our programs until a couple of years ago, when he moved from Pape and Cosburn area of East York to Scarborough. Many of Isaiah’s friends still lived in the Pape and Cosburn area, still attended our programs and were grieving the loss of their friend. Isaiah was a kind, respectful, engaging young man—someone who was not interested in drugs or violence or hate, who enjoyed lifting weights, eating pizza and listening to music. That Saturday night, and over the next few days, the story of Isaiah’s last hour on earth came out: older youth had come to the park to rob a small group of 14 and 15 year olds, and things had quickly turned violent. How do we even start to make sense of such a senseless act?
Thanksgiving Sunday, a dozen youth showed up in the front row of the church—a silent memorial to their friend. We decided to open the church on Thanksgiving Monday, allowing a few of the youth we know from our programs to share their stories and memories of Isaiah in our Youth Room at Bethany. We expected 15-20 youth, but 140 ended up arriving. We moved to the Lower Hall, and brought chairs from upstairs to accommodate the crowd. For two hours, youth after youth came to the microphone and shared how Isaiah had touched their life, made them laugh, stood up for them or inspired them in some way. Later that week, I was honoured to conduct the funeral for Isaiah. About three hundred people came for the funeral, which was held in the same park Isaiah had been stabbed. My words that day affirmed that “we will not forget, we will not fear, and we will go on.”
I quoted another Isaiah, the prophet of the Bible, from chapter 40:
“Those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength; they will soar on wings like eagles, they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not faint.”
“This is too good a community”, I assured the crowd, “Too good a city, to let evil and violence and hate prevail. We rise up together to honour Isaiah’s life by gaining strength together, combatting evil with good, combatting violence with peace, combatting hate with love, combatting fear with faith, faith in a loving God, faith in each other, faith we are not alone.”
After the service, everyone was welcome back to the church, where our gym and Lower Hall were filled with so many from our community and beyond, paying their respects, being together and finding hope together.
As I reflect on this whole sad experience, I know a couple of things even more deeply than before. The first is that God is good and I am so glad He is working in this world. We came face to face with evil and violence, but we know God is more powerful than evil and that is the certain hope that can help us move forward in a positive and healthy way.
The second is the crucial importance of reaching out to youth in a proactive and positive way. We started reaching out in 2007, even though we did not know what we were doing, what the response would be, how it would be financed, or where it would lead. We started running sports leagues in local schools, connecting with politicians and businesses and police and other churches. We then opened the church for after-school drop-ins, where youth could be mentored by older youth and engaged in positive activities. Eventually we were able to run a six-week summer camp. Last year we averaged 70 youth in grades 4-8, with 14 staff and another 15 volunteer leaders, including Malachi and other friends of Isaiah. The youth have come to know us, trust us, be with us… and when a crisis comes, the church is the place to turn–their refuge.
It is a humbling place to be, but with God’s help we will continue to reach out to any and all youth. We are so grateful for our CBOQ family who are partnering with us in this holy endeavour, helping us plant seeds of hope in a practical way. I close with the words written by Isaiah Witt and posted on Facebook a few months before he died: “if we could turn all the hate into electricity, we could light up the whole world.” Thank you for helping us let Jesus shine in our community, and into the souls of our youth.