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Churches respond to tragedy; walk and services planned

By Stuart Mann

Just hours after the deadly van rampage that killed 10 people and injured more than a dozen others in North York on April 23, the Church of the Incarnation at Bayview Avenue and Sheppard Avenue East opened its doors for a candlelight vigil.

By the next day, nine more Anglican churches on the Yonge Street corridor between North York and Lake Ontario were open for prayers and pastoral care. Soon churches across the city and elsewhere in the diocese were providing space and special services for those dealing with the shock and grief.

A floral tribute begins outside St. George on Yonge, near where a pedestrian was killed.

“I think the churches have responded remarkably,” said Bishop Kevin Robertson, the area bishop of York-Scarborough, where the tragedy occurred. “People who were hearing the news were in shock and were looking for comfort and peace and some answers. I think they were looking to be together as well.”

He has talked to many people in the area, including one person who had seen the van drive by. “I’m hearing stories of Anglicans feeling vulnerable and, in some cases, afraid. But there is a strong sense of getting together with other people to pray. Many Anglicans are trying to make sense of what’s happened over the past couple of days by being together in community and making time for prayer and silence.”

The Anglican churches in York Mills Deanery are organizing a prayer walk on Monday, April 30 starting at 1:30 p.m. It will begin at the northwest corner of the Finch subway station and proceed to St. George on Yonge, concluding with a vigil at the church at 2 p.m. All are invited to participate. In addition, a multi-faith service will be held this Sunday, April 29 at 7 p.m. at Mel Lastman Square in North York. Representatives from all faith groups in the city will attend. All are invited.

The vigil at the Church of the Incarnation on the night of the tragedy began at 7:30 p.m. and was attended by about 20 people, including Bishop Robertson. “It was very beautiful and comforting” said the Rev. Heather Gwynne-Timothy, the incumbent. “Bishop Kevin led us in prayers and there was lots of silence for those who had been affected. The church was very beautiful and we all had a candle to hold.”

Sign outside Church of the Incarnation.

The vigil included Taize songs, psalms and prayers for the victims and their families, and also for the driver of the van and his family. “It was very poignant, very moving,” said Ms. Gwynne-Timothy.

She said the clergy in the area were devastated by the tragedy but were focused on supporting others. “It’s hard to put into words how much this shakes you up, but you have to stay grounded so you can help other people cope.”

The church, like many others, added a message of hope to its outdoor sign. It says: “We pray for all who were affected by this tragedy in our community.”

The vigil had to be held at the Church of the Incarnation because the church closest to the scene of the rampage, St. George on Yonge, was cordoned off as police shut down that part of Yonge Street. St. George’s is located on Yonge Street just two stoplights south of Finch Avenue, near where the killings began.

“We’re right in the midst of it,” said the Rev. Leonard Leader, the priest-in-charge of St. George’s. He said the van had passed in front of the church and killed a pedestrian nearby.

The police barriers outside St. George’s were taken down on April 24 and the church plans to stay open from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. every day for the remainder of the week. The church has been receiving lots of offers of help, especially from clergy. “It’s quite encouraging,” he says. “They’re saying, ‘If I’m needed, please let me know.’ It’s coming from across the diocese.”

Mr. Leader says the church is providing space for private prayer, both in the chapel and the main sanctuary. “We offer people not only an opportunity for private prayer but also to speak to me or anyone else who is here. We also offer coffee, tea or water.”

Most people just want some time to pray, he says. “Those who have come in so far have been pretty reflective.” He says it has been busy at the church “but we’ve felt lots of support, lots of encouragement.”

Bishop Robertson will be at St. George’s this Sunday, joining the church for its two English-speaking services and its Mandarin-speaking service. “It’s an opportunity for us to reclaim the space and try to bring some healing to that community,” he says.

There will be an ecumenical prayer service for local churches tonight, April 26, at 7 p.m. at St. Edward the Confessor Roman Catholic Church, 75 Churchill Ave. All are welcome.

Messages written in chalk outside Church of the Redeemer.

At St. James Cathedral in downtown Toronto, the bell tolled for 10 minutes at noon on April 24-25 for those who had died. At the Church of the Redeemer on the corner of Bloor Street and Avenue Road, people were invited to write prayers and comments in chalk on a wall outside the church. By the end of the day, messages filled the wall and the pavement in front of it.

“A lot of messages were rooted in hope,” said the Rev. David Giffen, incumbent. Hundreds of people visited the church throughout the day, and in the evening there was a community vigil. Bishop Robertson attended, as did people from some churches in the Yonge Street corridor and elsewhere. “We really just took time to grieve together and to put our hope in the resurrection of Jesus Christ,” said Mr. Giffen.

Archbishop Colin Johnson posted a statement on the diocese’s website and social media just hours after the rampage on April 23. “Tragedy has struck our city today,” he wrote. “I weep for those who have died. I join in prayer for those who are physically injured or suffering emotionally from having witnessed such carnage, and for having lost loved ones. It is hard to comprehend such violence.”

He wrote that on the Sunday before the tragedy, many Christian churches had celebrated Good Shepherd Sunday, recalling Jesus as the one who cares for all his people in times of anguish. “Psalm 23 was read, which includes the verse ‘though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me.’ In the midst of such trauma, in the fear and confusion, anger and heartache, may we know that God is with us, with mercy and justice, healing and compassion. As the events unfold, may we find ways to comfort one another in grief and support each in our resolve to be a community of freedom, unity and peace.” Archbishop Fred Hiltz, Primate of the Anglican Church of Canada, posted a statement as well.

Churches and individuals took to social media soon after the tragedy to express their sorrow and support. The Rev. Chris Harper, the diocese’s Indigenous Native Priest, wrote on Facebook, “With all our prayers ascending, may the peace and love of God our Creator be drawn in to embrace all affected.” Flemingdon Park Ministry, a diocesan outreach in Don Mills, wrote on Facebook: “We are praying today for our fellow Torontonians who have been taken, and those that remain. Today we pray, tomorrow we show the world that our city will not be divided but come together in the face of tragedy.”

Messages of support and encouragement poured in from around the world on social media. Archbishop Francisco de Assis da Silva, Primate of Brazil, said on Twitter: “Prayers raised for consolation and hope to the people of Toronto. Our full solidarity with Canadian brothers and sisters!”