Hours after an alleged Islamic terrorist killed eight and injured 12 by driving onto a busy pedestrian and biking path in Lower Manhattan Oct. 31, two strangers approached pastor Sterling Edwards as he roasted hotdogs for a Halloween outreach to his Brooklyn church community.
“On a Tuesday night in the middle of the street, I had a chance to pray with some people, and that’s significant,” Edwards, a Southern Baptist who pastors Park Slope Community Church, told Baptist Press (BP). “It wasn’t like I had to go and ask.”
The women had been in the vicinity of the site just blocks from the World Trade Center when Sayfullo H. Saipov, an admitted supporter of Islamic State terrorists (or ISIS), allegedly drove a rented truck along several blocks of the path, stopping only when he collided with a school bus.
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“As horrific a situation as it is,” Edwards said, “anytime that we get a chance to point back to our hope being in Jesus, it can actually open a door for us. And I know that that’s not the avenue that we would necessarily like to go down, but at the same time … I got to pray with some people.”
The impromptu prayer encounter is said to be indicative of what happens when New Yorkers, accustomed to diversity and tolerance, are met with such tragedies, according to Manhattan church planter Rob Russell. Seven weeks ago, he planted Restoration Church in the same neighborhood where the attack occurred, the same neighborhood where he has lived the past three years.
“We unite during these times, rather than display any kind of fear,” Russell, a North American Mission Board (NAMB) church planter, told BP. “And that’s something that we hope can be an inspiration or a beacon for the rest of the country. The people that have different backgrounds, living with different belief systems, our conversations are actually more collaborative in these times, than being less so.”
Members of his new congregation of about 40 people held small prayer gatherings on their own after the event, Russell said, and lifted up several prayer concerns for the city and those affected by the tragedy.
“It’s definitely sobering and people are dealing with it in different ways, but I don’t think anyone feels like they’re dealing with it alone, or that they need to,” Russell said. “And even for our church, to me, in just the last 24 hours, it’s only been more of a reminder of the image of God that’s in every single person. That’s why every person has dignity and worth.”
All of New York still appears shaken by the killings, Russell said, even amid unity and strength.
The tragedy didn’t deter a million New Yorkers from participating in the annual Halloween parade of costumed residents hours later, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio said. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said the annual New York City marathon will proceed on Nov. 5 as scheduled.
Police identified Saipov as a 29-year-old native of Uzbekistan who had lived in the U.S. since 2010 and said he cried “Allahu Akbar,” Arabic for God is great, as he was shot and arrested.
Steve Canter, a NAMB Send City missionary, said the words are perhaps less shocking to New Yorkers than Americans in other parts of the country.
“Because we’re constantly surrounded by the diversity and the nations of the world, that to hear phrases like that,” Canter told BP, “I don’t think there’s as much of a shock value by those words and that they’re being proclaimed by someone.”
Cultural groups that don’t like each other, for the most part, figure out ways to live together in New York, Canter said.
“Part of that is you almost get desensitized to some of the language and the words and rhetoric that you hear,” Canter said. “But now still, it’s obviously, in the context of people being murdered, then it’s shocking.”
Canter works with several Southern Baptist church planters in New York, many who seek to share the gospel with Muslims and Arabic language communities.
“This is a reminder of the need for praying for them, for seeing them thrive in those neighborhoods that are very tough and very difficult and very dangerous, for some of them,” Canter said. “I think for Southern Baptists, I would love [for this to be] a reminder that they just need our love, and our support and encouragement.”
The attack is the deadliest in New York since Sept. 11, 2001, although the death and injury toll of the latest doesn’t rival the death toll of 2,600 in the earlier tragedy.
Six tourists died at the scene, New York police said in a press conference today. Two others died at hospitals. Nine remained hospitalized – four in critical but stable condition – as of noon Eastern Time today, police said. Among the injured, two were aboard the school bus Saipov hit. In the rental truck he drove, Saipov left a note pledging allegiance to ISIS, police said. Most recently, he had worked as an Uber driver.
On Sunday, Russell will begin a preaching series on faith and freedom, focusing on “how a just faith sets us free to pursue justice for everyone,” he said.
“We’re going to be able to unite as a church family in speaking to the issue and praying together this weekend,” Russell said. “That was actually what was in the sermon calendar before everything happened.”
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Diana Chandler is Baptist Press’ general assignment writer/editor.)