It was two older men – one a retired firefighter, the other with a badge on his belt – and they stood on either side of the younger man, with the bandages on his hand. He was taller than they, and his head hung down in humility. Theirs looked up in admiration and encouragement.
They stood close. They spoke earnestly.
“You are a hero,” one said.
“You did what a man is supposed to do,” the other said. “You set an example people need to see.”
It had started in the room where they stood, one of three in a row, facing onto Brooks Avenue. The younger man – Darnell Wilson – had heard the scream and seen Evangela Stanley running away.
And he acted without thought, and without hesitation. One, two, three strides, and the first blow landed. And the next and the next and the next.
He’s 32, and has two children, and times are tight at Christmas. But all he knew right then was that nobody was going to hurt Van – as everybody calls her – not while he was there.
It’s all on the surveillance video. The man from the security company describes in to anyone who will listen.
Darnell Wilson hit him and hit him and hit him. There was no quit in the man. And as he recalls it, it was a series of discrete thoughts. Every blow had to land and every blow had to stun, or he feared the masked intruder would inflict an injury on him. He instinctively knew he had to maintain the tactical initiative. It had to be his fight.
The man went down, in the doorway between rooms, near the door that opens onto Brooks Avenue, in front of a big picture window. That’s when he pulled the gun and fired, and Darnell Wilson thought of his son and his daughter. It wasn’t going to be here, and it wasn’t going to be this way. This wasn’t how he was going to die. Damned if this was how he was going to die. Damned if he was going to leave his son and his daughter this way.
As he tells the story, people bend over and peer at the bullet hole in the floor, and then point to the second one, in the far wall.
As the gun fired, Darnell Wilson intensified the barrage of his fists, man against metal, and he knocked the intruder through the plate-glass window, the two men so closely bound that they were both lacerated as they fell onto the sidewalk outside.
Beside the street, Darnell Wilson saw the gun begin to come loose, and he struck the man again, knocking it completely loose, and he scrambled for it, and grabbed it, and began striking the intruder with it.
By that point, the cook had come out to join the scrum, and the intruder was able to break free and run off, and Darnell Wilson thought it best not to pursue him.
Talking about it the next day, on Christmas Eve, the restaurant full of people, he was not boastful. There was no bragging, there was no glory seeking, it was just a quiet young man, with two older men telling him that he did good, that he did right, that he was a protector.
Around them was a mass of people, facing toward the counter, visiting.
They were communing. There were hugs, and love, an outpouring of the heart, a solidarity and support, for Evangela Stanley behind the counter, and for the goodness she represented and the community to which they belonged. They had heard of the attempted robbery, mostly on Facebook, and they had come to show support. By the hundreds. To stand with a sister.
Strangers brought flowers, a steady stream stopped to make a contribution, neighboring business owners came behind the counter to lend a hand, some customers insisted on paying $50 for a $12 plate of food. The mayor hugged Evangela Stanley, the City Council president laughed and danced with a county legislator, there were pastors and cousins and rekindled friendships, and the beating heart of a people and a place.
In a humble joint that sells jerked chicken and collards where Thurston and Brooks intersect.
The cameras and reporters caught the spirit and invited all to be witnesses.
And good had come of bad.
A month before, talking about her idea, at a table by the window, Evangela Stanley had wanted to do good. To feed people, yes, but to inspire them also. Maybe to inspire them more. It had come to her in the days after Thanksgiving, the people going hungry, and the gamble of pay what you can afford. For a week at first, to see if it broke her till, and then for the rest of the month. Some will pay less, and some will pay more, and maybe it comes out as a wash. And maybe some will be filled, and some others will be inspired. To love and give, however they can, wherever they can. To be one, and one heart, at Christmas time, and always.
That was the dream, hatched as she cooked and served and cleaned, as she visited and encouraged and bore the burden.
And it was a dream that came true to a degree she couldn’t have imagined, by a means she couldn’t have anticipated. A greater good than she could have hoped, as a consequence of an evil she couldn’t have conceived.
People were fed for a month, and then the darkness came, and the light shone.
And on Christmas Eve, they were fed in a new way, with brotherhood and community, gratitude and joy. A light and a love in the faces and hearts of the people and the city.
Evangela Stanley got what she wanted. She did what she was called to do.
Miracles happen the way they happen, and the Lord uses who he will.
This is Rochester’s Christmas miracle. A coming together, as a consequence of love and generosity, compassion and courage.