Twenty-five minutes seemed like an eternity on that warm, spring day in North York. Ordinary people were out doing ordinary things in the afternoon sunshine when, seemingly from nowhere, a van sped down the street and sidewalk, leaving a long trail of death and destruction in its wake. For those of us who call Toronto home, the events of that April day have left us shaken. Violence like this had happened in other places – London, Nice, Barcelona – but not here. And then it happened – here. At the end of those 25 minutes, 10 people were dead, more than a dozen were injured, and hundreds of eyewitnesses were left with scars that may last a lifetime.
As people of faith, the events of April 23 leave us asking some of the deepest questions of life: “Why is there evil in the world?” “Why do bad things happen to good people?” “How can we forgive?” I believe it’s important to sit with these questions and not settle for easy answers, but rather search for God in the midst of the deep pain and tragedy, and lean on the God in whom we have come to put our trust. Personally, I find encouragement in the words of Psalm 105: “Search for the Lord and his strength; continually seek his face.”
In trying to seek the Lord’s face in the midst of this tragedy, I have been moved by the outpouring of generosity and compassion from across the city and around the world. People of all faiths, and no faith at all, have come together in a common purpose to help and heal: the #torontostrong movement emerged, flowers and teddy bears were lovingly left at memorials throughout the city, tens of thousands of people attended the multi-faith vigil at Mel Lastman Square, and prayers for peace and healing were offered from different religious traditions. For Christians, this universal reaching-out is nothing less than the movement of God the Holy Spirit in our midst. We are reminded in that well-known hymn, “Where charity and love prevail, there God is ever found.”
I have also experienced the more explicit ways in which God’s love in Christ has been shared in the wake of this tragedy. Within hours of the terrible news, our churches were opening their doors as safe spaces for prayer, silence and pastoral care. Clergy and lay people across the diocese were gathering together to pray and check-in with each other. Prayers were offered not only for the victims and their families, but also for the driver of the van and his family, reminding us of Jesus’ difficult teaching from the Sermon on the Mount: “Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44).
Exactly one week after the van attack, several hundred people joined us for a prayer walk down Yonge Street, to mark the stretch of road and sidewalk that had been a place of such carnage. As a processional cross was lifted high at the corner of Yonge and Finch, we walked behind it singing, Ubi Caritas: “Live in charity and steadfast love; God will dwell with you.” Some bystanders joined the walk, others stopped and made the sign of the cross, and still others stood and wept. Our witness as followers of Jesus was to reclaim the street in his name and for his sake. I hope that our presence was a sign to the community that, even in the face of inexplicable tragedy, this is still God’s world, God’s street, God’s sidewalk, God’s people.
At the conclusion of the prayer walk, we gathered for a vigil at St. George on Yonge, close to where some of the victims had died. I drew a connection between the Via Dolorosa that Christ walked, and our own Way of Sorrows that we had just walked. Both roads were marked by injustice, suffering, and the death of innocents, but it is our conviction and our Easter hope that both roads also lead to resurrection and new life. Nothing will bring back those who died on April 23, and so we pray that they now enter into the light of God’s nearer presence. For us who remain, may we be renewed in our commitment to build the Kingdom of God here on earth – a Kingdom of justice and mercy, of peace and love.