I’m not a huge Patriots’ fan, however I do enjoy relaxing on a Sunday afternoon by watching them play like just about every other person from Maine to eastern Connecticut. But I think a good lot of people in New England, and maybe throughout the country, temporarily switched their team allegiance a few weeks ago. Who didn’t hear about Buffalo Bills’ player, Damar Hamlin, who collided with another player and went into cardiac arrest during a game recently? An anxious nation held its breath and waited for updates on his condition. It looked pretty grim for a while. But a week after his injury he set off every alarm in his ICU room, not because his condition had deteriorated, but because he was so excited that the Buffalo Bills took the opening kickoff 96 yards for a touchdown. (For non-football fans — that’s a good thing!) Ultimately, the Buffalo Bills beat the Patriots by a score of 35-23. Speaking for Patriots fans everywhere, we forgive them.
And really, why wouldn’t we forgive them? Hamlin’s life-threatening injury was just the latest in a series of horrible tragedies that have beset the greater Buffalo area and western New York. There was a mass shooting at a grocery store in Buffalo in May; 13 people were killed and many more injured. In December more than 40 people lost their lives in a blizzard of epic proportions that left the area paralyzed as whiteout conditions prevented rescue personnel from coming to the aid of the stranded and helpless. And then on New Year’s Eve, five children perished in a house fire. As one local pastor said, “We haven’t really had a chance to heal.” But it’s not all bad news.
As is so often the case, we hear a story that gives us hope, restores our faith in humankind, and reminds us of the goodness of God. Enter one Jay Withey. Withey, like so many others, found himself stranded on the road in Buffalo’s blizzard. He slept a night in his pickup truck with two strangers who were also stranded. The overnight temperature was 9°. The following morning his truck ran out of gas. “I walked to the houses to see if I could find shelter, any house that had lights on. I had $500 that I was offering, to sleep on their floor,” Withey said. He went to a dozen doors but no one would give him shelter. For the first time in his life, he feared he was going to die.
And then, off to his left, Withey saw a school about 600 or 700 feet away. He felt sure the power would be on, that it would be heated, and he assumed that there would be food in the school, too. He smashed a window, gained entry, and then walked to other cars stranded nearby and offered the occupants refuge in the school. He rescued two dozen people including senior citizens and children, as well as two dogs.
According to the Washington Post, Withey managed to open the cafeteria and found cereal, juice, water, and coffee for the group. He cooked pizza for lunch and meatballs for dinner. The group spent the hours in the cafeteria eating and getting to know one another. They shared what Christmas meant to them, where they’d gone to school, what they did for a living and how they ended up stranded in a blizzard on Christmas Eve.
“We just enjoyed that we had shelter, we had food and we had a new family,” one survivor said. “On Christmas morning, we all woke up and said ‘Merry Christmas’ to everybody.”
Withey has been hailed as a hero by single-handedly saving the lives of 25 people on Christmas Eve in the midst of that raging snow storm. As the storm moved away from the area late Christmas Day, Jay Withey did one more act of kindness: he found the school’s snowblower and cleared all the vehicles that belonged to members of his “survival pack.” Before leaving the school, he wrote a letter of apology for breaking a window to gain entrance to the school, and wished everyone a Merry Christmas.
Do Withey’s actions and rescue of those people qualify as a Christmas miracle? It’s not for me to say, but here’s what I do know. One man, acting out of courage, compassion, and conviction, was Christ to those who could not help themselves. I know the Bills won’t win the Super Bowl now, having lost to Cincinnati on January 22. But whether or not the Bills made it to the big game, there’s one thing I’m sure of — Buffalo’s real winner is Jay Withey. And that my friends, is the Good News!
Anchor columnist Ada Simpson is former editor of Ministry and Liturgy magazine, holds an M.A. in Pastoral Ministry, and is the director of Music Ministry at St. Francis and St. Dominic parishes in Swansea.