Written by Joel Gordon
Thousands of people marched and sang in solidarity moving south on Yonge Street just a few days after the tragic van attack in Toronto. The day following this devastating event, on April 24, 2018, our neighbourhood gathered to mourn and grieve at a memorial located at the corner of Finch and Yonge. How did these events come together so quickly and bring together so many people? Who are some of the key individuals who helped to engage the city and our nation in a response of solidarity, grief, and love? How did youth workers lead the way in turning cries of sorrow into songs of healing? How did they help Toronto van attack victims?
A few hours after the van attack, Yonge Street was eerily quiet. I received a WhatsApp message from a friend and fellow community worker named Jesse James, inviting me to a meeting at Puck N’ Wings, a local restaurant and pub near Yonge and Finch. On my way, I walked along yellow police tape lining the street.
The few pedestrians walking with me were visibly troubled. Some people were weeping, others walked with their hands covering their mouths and many had their eyes glued to the most tragic sight I have ever seen in this neighbourhood. Willowdale is a community I have been connected to my entire life. I saw a black tarp covering a victim—a fallen neighbour.
The road was closed to all traffic except for a single stretch of sidewalk for foot traffic. Police cars were stationed around the large black van that was parked beside the body. The air was still. The neighbourhood was silent and everyone seemed to be walking at half speed. Even though I was in shock, I was reminded that I was walking with a purpose, on mission, being led by a loving Father who was with me, His Spirit was comforting me, and Jesus was quietly prompting me to respond faithfully.
I picked up my pace, but before arriving at the meeting I stopped into a local restaurant where I know the owner and some of the servers to let them know that we were praying for them. The server I visited was thankful, yet visibly shaken. Two years ago, that same server had introduced one of her patrons to our congregation. As I left the restaurant, I saw a large blind that was raised up and behind it, the body of a victim, a fellow neighbour, was placed with dignity inside the black van.
The stretch of road where the van attack began is 40 steps away from my church building. As the van with the body inside drove south on Yonge, I continued north to my meeting. Jesse James who invited me is a friend, a fellow leader, a member of the Youth Unlimited team (Youth For Christ) and a youth worker in Willowdale.
As I replayed in my mind the image of the van driving away with a fallen neighbour, I could almost feel the evil in the air like moisture on my skin during a humid summer afternoon. As I arrived at the meeting place, Romans 12:21 surfaced within me: Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. Click To Tweet
I waved hello to Jesse and others through the front window as I arrived. On most Monday nights you can find Jesse at this Puck N’ Wings studying, chatting with a stranger, or having a meeting. Jesse is a Master of Divinity student at Tyndale University College and Seminary. Jesse loves Willowdale; he lives in the neighbourhood, serves in the community, and has built a vast network or friends, brothers, sisters, and allies here over the last seven years. He’s even forged a good relationship with Toronto’s mayor and local councillor. Jesse is also a friend to underserved families and a brother to many.
Most of us who gathered on the night of the van attack were part of a Willowdale Collaboration Network that Jesse started in 2011. Through the collaboration network, pastors, community workers, local businesses, neighbours, and youth have come together and built relationships of trust and love. YFC’s Youth Unlimited was instrumental in providing Jesse with the support, mentorship, and freedom he needed to grow into the leader that he is today. Praise God.
While in the restaurant, I learned that Alek Minassian was the name of the person who was apprehended for the van attack. There were a total of 25 people injured on Yonge between Finch and Sheppard. I took a seat near the window and greeted the other local pastors and ministry leaders at the table. We prayed for our neighbourhood and we prayed for Alek and the Minassian family. Then, we started to plan how to respond to this crisis.
Jesse and another dynamic leader, Lily Cheng, brought leadership to a group called “We Love Willowdale.” Jesse describes us as “a bunch of nobodies.” In a matter of minutes, Lily set up a Facebook page for the group.
Our building at Willowdale Baptist is the closest church building to the where the van attack started. The day after the attack, we opened our doors to the public and offered parking, free coffee, and restrooms to our neighbours and the media.
That same day following the attack, We Love Willowdale planned an event to observe a moment of silence at the Olive Square memorial site and spearheaded an initiative called 25 Days of Music on Yonge—one day for every neighbour, family member or friend killed and injured in Willowdale from the van attack. Musicians were invited to help “turn cries of sorrow into songs of healing” at 1:30 p.m. for 25 consecutive days.
This group of nobodies, inspired by somebody, helped to plan several other events including a Willowdale Prayer Vigil and Walk, a Community Safety Town Hall, Reclaim Yonge Walk of Healing & Solidarity, a decommissioning ceremony, and a grief share group hosted by Willowdale Baptist Church where I currently serve as the community pastor.
A large part of the success of the planning and implementation of these events was based in the intentional network of churches and youth workers already in place—the Willowdale Collaboration Network has been missionally engaged in Willowdale for seven years leading up to this tragedy.
The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada, publisher of Love Is Moving magazine, is committed to “uniting Evangelicals to bless Canada in the name of Jesus.” I see this uniting happening as God’s gift to Willowdale through a YFC worker, Jesse James. We have a new level of unity in our community worth celebrating.
Even through this horrific tragedy, our bond in Christ has been strengthened. Jesus’ prayer in John 17 is that the Church be one, just as He and the Father are one. Jesse shared from this passage during one of the first meetings of the Willowdale Collaboration Network.
The relationships that have been built in Willowdale through Jesse and other leaders allowed for a faithful and sustained response to grieve with our community and continue on a journey of healing with them.
Collaboration and collective impact is a gift from God. My hope is that leaders like Jesse will continue the work of building bridges between the hurting and the Healer, the underserved and the All Powerful, the lost and the found, and among all churches who hold high the name of Jesus.Who's in your network of nobodies being led by Somebody? Click To Tweet
To learn more about Jesse’s story watch this mini-doc called We Love Willowdale.