Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn.
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Local congregations are called to be a visible expression of the body of Christ with
specific people in a specific place “for such a time as this.”
DALLAS FRIESEN, Thrive
2018 has been a rough year for the City of Toronto. On April 23, a delivery van careened down Yonge Street, ramming pedestrians. Ten people were killed; 16 were injured; countless more were traumatized by the event. A mere three months later, on July 22, a gunman opened fire on a busy Greektown restaurant, killing two young people and injuring 13 more and, again, leaving many others with deep, invisible scars. Beyond these tragedies, there have also been numerous shootings, including one in a busy upscale Toronto mall, sending people fleeing in terror. Each time, our corporate sense of safety is chipped away, leaving many adrift and unsure.
There is no shortage of grief.
How can churches respond? We spoke to Pastor Gene Tempelmeyer at Spring Garden Church, just a few steps away from where the Toronto Van Attack occurred. This is what he had to say:
J: What was the impact of the van attack on your church?
G: It probably was—in some ways—similar across the city, except for the fact that roughly a third to a half of the congregation live within a 15 minute walk of the van’s route. Everyone was a little stunned that it had happened so close to home. I know myself I am often out walking on Yonge street to go for lunch… for a number of days or weeks after I was kind of nervous out walking… I knew on a logical level that it wasn’t going to happen again, but I was very aware of all white vans.
J: How did your church respond to the tragedy?
G: It was a matter of being present and being open to whatever came and whatever needs were there—and being willing not to play a solo game. The night of the van attack, some of us went on a prayer walk; some of us went to a community meeting… No one was going to manage [the response] on their own. A lot of my work was connecting people to other people—matching resources with needs. Through that we were able to do quite a bit in terms of being part of various church gatherings where people were together to pray, but also being out on the street letting people know that there was counselling available. Some people had therapy dogs out. They were able to get the therapy dogs down around the memorials and down around Willowdale Baptist Church and the therapy dogs were really accepted and surprisingly helpful. People would stop to pet a dog and begin talking about the attack and how they felt about it in a way they wouldn’t have without them.
J: How did your church continue to provide support in the aftermath?
G: [Spring Garden Church] was involved with “We Love Willowdale” who were present at the memorials at the time of the attack each day for a month. They organized music, and I did some paintings. It was a lot like the therapy dogs. People could stop and watch for a minute…. But I had a number of conversations with people about how it affected them. There’s two communities. There’s the 9-5 crew, and the others who are only there in the evenings. There’s very little overlap. The people who were most likely to have witnessed the attack or seen people injured on the street were mostly likely those who were there between 9-5. They were down on the street when it happened. At least two thirds of the people that I talked to that had had some presence on the day of the van attack were people who worked in the neighbourhood but who don’t necessarily live here… For those who needed further aftermath counselling, we referred them to the Family Life Centre at Tyndale.
J: Were there ways in which God worked through this tragedy?
G: Yes. There were. Some were direct. People were willing to open up and talk, and quite aware that a large proportion of the response was being made by churches and Christians in the community. I think people noticed that and appreciated that. It helped churches develop a stronger sense of a tie between the church and the community and also with each other. There have been good relationships and networks coming out of that to help people move forward.
J: How did you feel God was able to use you, personally?
G: When I was down on the street and I was painting at the memorials… I spent about half the time talking to people with a paintbrush in my hand… I had people with a real openness… we were replacing the grief with celebration and music. People asked, “Why are you doing this?” It was an opportunity to say, “We are here as people who love Jesus and love Willowdale… I had a lot of conversations about death, about what that means, about life in the city… and how people don’t take time to be connected to other people. And then something like this happens and people realise that just going to work and home… it misses out on a lot. Many people felt that they needed to be part of a community.
Jesus said, “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33b) As we mourn with those who mourn, we find not only that God brings us comfort, but that we bring his comfort to those who have yet to experience him—and to our brothers and sisters who may be stumbling along the way. It is the still small voice of the Spirit working through us as we remain “faithfully present” in our communities.