Just a few weeks ago, on April 23, hearts around the world were broken after a rented Ryder van intentionally plowed down pedestrians on a busy Yonge Street sidewalk, leaving 10 killed and 14 injured. Eight women and two men died, ranging in age from 22 to 25. It was the worst mass murder in the history of Toronto and one of the worst in recent Canadian history. The motivation of the driver, Alek Minassian, 25, is still uncertain.
The carnage was only steps away from some of our churches, including Willowdale and Toronto Yugoslavian, and from Crawford Adventist Academy, our K-12 school celebrating its 65th anniversary. It could have been our child, parent, grandparent, sibling; it could have been any of us. Beyond the fact that this tragedy hit so close to home, as Adventists we are called to love our neighbour and bring hope to a broken world; thankfully, many of us took this call seriously.
Vigil at Mel Lastman Square and Pre-Vigil Walk
Sunday, April 29, Seventh-day Adventists were present among thousands of well-wishers at an official vigil held at Mel Lastman Square, near the crime site. Before the vigil, Adventurers, Master Guides and Pathfinders in full uniform, along with some Conference directors, pastors and other church members, participated in a walk of “healing and solidarity” toward Mel Lastman Square. Both the vigil and the walk were organized by Faith in the City and the Toronto Area Interfaith Council.
Orlando Pule, Family Ministries director, who joined in the walk and vigil with his son, a Pathfinder, and mother-in-law, noted that while they did speak to people in distress along the way, the walk was primarily a time of sombre reflection. “As Christians, it is our responsibility to reflect the love of Christ during [tragic] moments and to be present. The ministry of presence is one of the most important ministries we could ever have. You don’t even have to speak. Just that you are there speaks volumes.”
Pule and family, Edwin Martin, Adventurers, Master Guides and Pathfinders (AMP) director—who coordinated the AMP presence—and others arrived early to the vigil, where they were able to speak to people around them about the tragedy and hear their stories of resilience. “Tragedy does that sometimes, the humanness of the situation helps us drop our guards. What connects us is that hope beyond the tragedy, being able to move forward united as a city,” said Pule.
The spirit of unity in grief was evident throughout the vigil, where leaders of different faith groups, including Buddhist, Hindu, Jewish, Christian and Muslim, offered songs, prayers and messages of hope. Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau, Toronto mayor John Tory and Ontario premier Kathleen Wynne were among the political leaders in attendance. The emotional, yet uplifting, program also featured several Toronto area choirs, including the Toronto Children’s Choir singing “Hold On”— “Hold on, just a little while longer, everything will be all right.”
It was meaningful that so many people, regardless of faith background, came together for prayer in a time of distress. For Adventists, it was even more meaningful to look at the crowd and see our church members, in uniform, from a distance. Said Pastor Errol Lawrence, who was present at the walk and vigil, “This was a time of great togetherness, to show the strength of Torontonians in a crisis. And the participation of our Pathfinders, Adventurers, Master Guides, pastors and other church members shows that we believe in community, and says a lot about our concern for the welfare of others.”
Crawford Adventist Academy Visits #TorontoStrong Memorial
Crawford Adventist Academy (CAA) visited the #TorontoStrong memorial at Olive Square on Monday, April 30, close to the crime scene. Forty-seven students, along with high school faculty, Mr. Andon Boyce (who was interviewed by the CBC) and Ms. Priscila Coelho, registrar, Mrs. Khanneth Rambissoon and development director, Mrs. Judy Gamez, were present. They were joined by Pastor Daniel Saugh, CAA alum, pastor of Barrie Adventist Church and chaplain, Toronto Police.
Crawford students sang a few songs, shared Bible verses and spoke from the heart about what it was like to be at the #TorontoStrong memorial at Olive Square. Those present also had the opportunity to speak with passersby and residents of the neighbourhood. Before returning to school, they formed a prayer circle; then a few students and Pastor Saugh led out in prayer for the three police officers from 32 Division who came to join them, the neighbourhood and the victims’ families.
Shared Gamez, “It was a wonderful experience to pray for and thank some of the officers who joined us at Olive Square from 32 Division. It was also very sobering to meet a gentleman who lives in a condo in the area. He told me that every morning he looks out his condo window and can see the #TorontoStrong memorial reminding him of the tragedy. He thanked us for sharing our songs and taking the time to be there. It was a privilege to be able to serve our community in some small way.”
Crawford students were also greatly moved by the visit to Olive Square. Said Kenya Murray, Grade 10, “I was enthusiastic and anxious about visiting the Toronto Strong memorial that day! My brother and friend both travel along Yonge St. and all I kept thinking was ‘What if it had been them? It could have been any of us!’”
For Crawford students and faculty alike, the Yonge St. tragedy was a reminder that these tragedies aren’t just happening across the globe but right in our neighbourhoods, that we should live each day with intention, never take anything for granted and always live right with the Lord.
Adventist Pastors and Chaplains Offering Prayer and Counsel
Near the crime scene are several impromptu memorial sites covered with bouquets of flowers, condolence notes in multiple languages and handwritten signs with prayers and well wishes. Last week, in cooperation with City of Toronto officials, local Adventist pastors set up canopies near the main memorial in front of Mel Lastman Square. For nearly a week, beginning Monday, April 30, they provided a place where people could stop by to talk, debrief and pray or be prayed for, as desired.
Spearheading this effort was Pastor Darren Godsoe of the nearby Willowdale Seventh-day Adventist Church, who secured permission and organized Metro North Central pastors. He spoke of a slow, steady stream of receptive visitors. “One resident of the area thanked us for being there and told us that what we are doing is really needed. She said we needed to be there for not just three days but three weeks!” In fact, the need was so great that they extended their stay from the planned three days (Monday, April 30, to Wednesday, May 2) to Sunday, May 6.
Godsoe noted that, through this effort, they also made connections with city and community leaders, who gave their full support; for instance, the ‘I Love Willowdale’ community organization requested that a representative from Willowdale Adventist Church attend their weekly planning meetings.
Joining the pastors were Ontario Conference president, Pastor Mansfield Edwards, and Maria McClean, Health & Prayer Ministries director and a clinical chaplain. McClean, who stayed until the 6th, had the opportunity to speak to a wide range of people, including a surviving victim, area residents, witnesses, bystanders who rendered first aid and CPR, friends, family and coworkers of the victims (both killed and surviving) and people who worked with others who had narrowly escaped injury.
McClean noted that, as they shared their stories, “what stood out [to me] was the deep, deep pain that was communicated, not only verbally, but also non-verbally, through tears and shaking their heads.” She added, “I was happy to be there to provide emotional and spiritual support, not as an Adventist to witness but as a human being, walking alongside other human beings, offering comfort.”
Christelle Agboka, Ontario Conference communications director
With contribution from Judy Gamez, Crawford Adventist Academy development director