BUFFALO, N.Y. – Two pastors’ newfound friendship gave their churches an unexpected opportunity to serve their community together when the May 14 Tops Friendly Market shooting in Buffalo, N.Y., unfolded directly across the street from one of their congregations.
“When the shooting happened, I called him first,” said church planter Eric Napoli, of his friend Mark Hamilton, whom he had met not long before the tragic incident.
Hamilton pastors Faithful Stones Church, which sits at the same intersection as the popular grocery store that became the site of a racially charged shooting that killed 10 people.
Months before the shooting, Napoli and Hamilton had struck up a ministry partnership and friendship, which helped connect the churches for a swift response to their community.
“By Monday [after the shooting], we were together with a prayer group there on site,” Napoli said.
Napoli, a Send Network church planter at nearby Sheridan Parkside Community Church, helped organize events that were hosted at Faithful Stones Church. Several other Send Network church planters also came to volunteer and help with the event.
Across the community, Southern Baptists had also started praying and immediately began planning ways to minister together to the heartbroken community.
“The church needs to be responding. Crisis happens every day and our world is hurting,” said Jeremiah Brinkman, a Send Network church planting leader in New York with the North American Mission Board (NAMB). “The Gospel is the hope, and our local churches are best poised to help meet needs and change lives.”
Several churches in and around Buffalo coordinated in recent weeks to host outreaches designed to provide comfort and encouragement as those in the community seek to heal and recover. Together, those churches have hosted two community events so far, on the Saturdays of May 28 and June 6.
“Buffalo being the size town that it is, less than 300,000 people, you either knew someone, or you know someone who was related to someone, who was part of this massacre,” said Brian Robinson, pastor of Fillmore Community Church in Buffalo. “It’s gonna take a while for this to heal.”
During the events, volunteers cooked and gave away food, provided activities for children and prayed with and ministered to those who attended. NAMB, the Baptist Convention of New York and the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention provided support for the outreach events.
“God just had me in the right place at the right time to be perfectly honest. That’s part of the miracle of the story,” Napoli said. “I just was there and said ‘yes.’”
After growing up in Buffalo, Napoli served in pastoral ministry for more than 30 years before planting Sheridan Parkside.
“Looking back, I just realize that it was completely a God-designed relationship,” said Napoli, of the relationship between the two churches. “Our families have really clicked together.”
They partnered together through a Good Friday service and met several times in the weeks leading up to May 14.
In the aftermath of the tragedy, Faithful Stones Church has provided ongoing ministry to neighbors. Tops was one of the few grocery stores in the neighborhood and has been closed since the shooting.
So, Faithful Stones has offered groceries and meals every Wednesday through what’s called their Peace Market. Napoli primarily focused on organizing the weekend outreach events and plans to continue those once a month for as long as they are able to keep going.
“Buffalo is called the city of good neighbors, and there’s reason for that,” Napoli said. “It’s not just hype. There’s a lot of people coming together, a lot of people loving one another, and it’s great to be a part of that.”
Napoli also shared that there has been openness to the gospel as Hamilton’s church and others who volunteer through the ongoing projects share the good news of Jesus. One reason for that, Napoli said, stems from the fact that many of the victims in the shooting had deep, abiding faith.
“The testimonies that have come out of the people who were slain should not be overlooked,” he said. “Because of that, it definitely changes the tenor of what Buffalo has been going through. I don’t have any doubt about that whatsoever.”
For members of Sheridan Parkside Community Church and several other local churches, the opportunity to minister has spurred their desire to participate in the mission – bringing hope and healing to those who are suffering.
Brinkman has been telling the story of how churches in New York have rallied to come around this hurting community.
The mass shooting in Buffalo was, sadly, the first of a number of other shootings that took place in the weeks that followed, at a church in Laguna Woods, Calif., at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, and Cornerstone Church in Ames, Iowa.
“I share partly to tell the story,” Brinkman said, “but I also want to encourage others to respond in their own context, to be the Church whenever crisis strikes.”