We often hear stories of people doing amazing and heroic things. But what is it that gives them the ability to do things so far outside the norm? How do they tap into knowledge and skills they didn’t realize they had?
The Rev. Kathy Stoner-Lasala, pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Macomb, Ill., has a pretty good idea.
“It was the grace of God,” she said.
She should know. She and members of her church were preparing for Palm Sunday worship and activities when they were suddenly called upon to save a life.
The story actually began four months before, when the members of First reached out to some neighbors. The owner of a trailer park near the church had decided to suddenly close the park and evict the residents. Some were able to make other arrangements, but others suddenly found themselves homeless.
“One of our elders challenged us to take care for those people who lived in the trailer park who had been dumped out on the street without resources,” Stoner-Lasala said.
These residents were invited to the church, where they met with members and formed congregational care teams made up of trailer park residents and church members. Using these teams, they would work together to resolve residents’ problems.
“Through these congregational care teams we formed pretty close relationships with the people who were being evicted,” Stoner-Lasala said. “One of the residents of the trailer park began to give back to the community and the way that he was giving back was to volunteer at the community dinner that is held at our church once a month. “
The resident, whose name is Darwin, was on his way to the church to help with the dinner on Palm Sunday morning when he was approached by a man he didn’t know but had seen around the trailer park. The man walked with him a short way but then suddenly vanished, only to emerge moments later from the bushes with a knife.
Darwin was stabbed through the back and into the chest, nicking an artery. He attempted to break free but the attack continued. By the time he’d made it to the church door, he’d suffered another stab wound to the side, a slash wound to his neck and a number of defensive wounds on his hands and arms.
Once he got to the door, he was able to get inside and yell for help while holding his attacker outside the door. Church members rushing to see what the commotion was about saw Darwin and all the blood and called 911. They also brought kitchen towels and got Darwin down on the floor where they could put pressure on his wounds to try to slow the bleeding.
“Just before the attack happened Darwin had called a church member to say he was coming over to help with this Project Hope dinner and they hung up at 7:36 in the morning,” Stoner-Lasala said. “From another cell phone tag we know that the first responders pulled up at 7:42. In other words, the entire attack and the response only took 6 minutes. It seemed like forever.”
As Stoner-Lasala arrived in the entryway, she was struck by the image of Darwin lying on the floor with church members on either side tending his wounds and talking to him.
“One of the church members said, ‘I was able to help him, I wasn’t afraid, I knew him. I wasn’t afraid, I knew him,’” she said. “Because they knew each other, the church members were able to keep him calm and keep him conscious and keep him talking to them.”
The care and concern of the church members did not end when the EMTs arrived. Church members accompanied Darwin first to the local hospital and then to a trauma center to which he was airlifted. Members stayed with him the entire time he was there, especially because his attacker, later taken into custody with a self-inflicted stab wound, ended up in the same hospital.
When he was released they brought him back to Macomb, where he is living in a small studio apartment in a church member’s home. The focus of the care team initially created to help Darwin find a job and new housing has changed to providing round the clock care during his recuperation.
“We’re dressing his wound, packing the one wound, running him back and forth for his appointments to get stitches taken out or whatnot,” Stoner-Lasala said. “We’ve created an online care calendar and the online calendar is where we keep track of everything he needs.”
The church also put together a series of trauma briefings, one with local police who briefed them on what was known about the case and another with a trauma counselor who did a large group briefing with everyone who was in the church on Palm Sunday morning.
“What I’m hearing from them (members) when they get feedback, it was heroic … Their response is, ‘It wasn’t heroic. I didn’t know what I was doing,’” Stoner-Lasala said. “It was the grace of God and the sense of communitas … Trusting God and trusting the Holy Spirit and trusting each other to handle the situation.”
Stoner-Lasala is grateful the church stepped up to help the people evicted from the trailer park months earlier because it’s those care teams she credits with building that trust.
It is also that relationship that ultimately saved Darwin’s life. If he hadn’t been on his way to the church, where there were a number of people assembled, and had instead been attacked virtually anywhere else at 7:36 on a Sunday morning, the outcome might have been very different.
“For me it’s an Easter story — because Christ is risen, that church was there on that corner. Darwin is alive today and we are alive and well today,” Stoner-Lasala said. “Everybody was right where they needed to be when they needed to be there. And nobody thought they had any of the skills they needed to do any of the things they did until the EMTs got there. I think they were guided. I think the Spirit guided them.”
Toni Montgomery is a freelance writer in Statesville, N.C., where she is also secretary for First Presbyterian Church.