Answering the Christmas bell

by Robert Mitchell
Illustrations by Joe Marino

As flames engulfed a nearby building, residents fled and sought shelter at the Hempstead, N.Y., corps as the Christmas morning service came to a close.

Sirens filled the air just as morning Christmas service at The Salvation Army in Hempstead, N.Y., was concluding. Ruth Hepburn, sitting in back near the church doors, hoped the sound would fade, a sign that the emergency was somewhere else.

“But the sirens didn’t go away,” Hepburn recalls. “They kept getting louder. Then I saw people running and I went out to see what was happening.” Hepburn, the church’s official welcomer, saw fire trucks arriving and the ensuing commotion.

Right across the street, an apartment building was on fire. Residents were fleeing into the bitter cold, some dressed only in pajamas, shorts, and T–shirts.

“It was so cold, people just couldn’t stay outside,” remembers Major Young Sung Kim, who co–pastors the church. “We had to do something.”

One of the fire victims seeking refuge was Nicole Padmore, who lived on the fourth floor. She had opened her apartment door to see heavy smoke billowing down the hall. She quickly snatched her 11–year–old daughter, Zoe, who was wearing only sleep shorts and a tee.

“I grabbed my daughter and ran down the four flights of stairs to get out of the building,” Padmore remembers. “The smoke was so thick, she almost passed out.” 

Displaced residents lined the sidewalk and hoped help would arrive. It soon came from The Salvation Army. 

Major Young urged people to come into the warmth of The Salvation Army chapel and gym. About 80 residents would receive hot food and drinks, and so much more, including a loving prayer from the congregation. Some volunteers from the church stayed late into the night until the residents found housing.

“The Salvation Army gave us shelter and food. It was so comforting to have them help us in this time of need,” Padmore says.

The Red Cross would help the displaced victims find housing, but in the meantime, until the situation stabilized, Salvation Army volunteers gave young Zoe pajama pants and a place to stay warm. 

“We had unlimited access to the church,” Padmore says. “Everyone was really nice to us. There are no words. They were just amazing. They’ve done a lot for the neighborhood.”

Room at the inn

Despite feeling under the weather that morning, Major Soo Kim had just finished preaching a Christmas message from Luke 2 called “A Time To Be Born.” The congregation had closed the service by singing “O Little Town of Bethlehem.” Major Soo now calls it the “perfect song,” given what the day would bring.

“We became the town of Bethlehem, where there was no place for them to dwell and we became ‘the inn’ that Christmas morning,” she says. “We became ‘the manger’ in Bethlehem where they could come and rest. They found shelter and warmth and food and love. As I pronounced the benediction, people came flooding into the church.”

Fire officials said 14 people were hurt in the blaze, which occurred in 2022, starting on the second floor of the Hayse House apartment building on Sealey Avenue in Hempstead, a bustling village in Long Island’s Nassau County. About 150 people evacuated the scene. According to Major Soo, that number included one person who jumped to safety.

Finding love and warmth

Initially the gym was too cold, Hepburn says, so the fire victims sat in the chapel until the heating could circulate and warm the gym. Hepburn and her husband, Graeme, and others searched the kitchen pantry for food. They cooked rice and beans, plantains, mac and cheese, hamburgers, chili, and more. The couple’s daughter, Lucy, also helped serve food.

The volunteers distributed coats, blankets, clothes, and even Christmas gifts.

“We were doing what The Salvation Army does,” Hepburn says. “If there is somebody in need, we will step up. That’s our congregation.”

Angie Olmedo, the church’s ministry assistant, and her family were at the church helping until around 9 p.m. Her sister, Lieutenant Sarai Olmedo, a Salvation Army officer from the neighboring Queens, N.Y., Temple Corps, also pitched in to distribute blankets and other goods.

“We wanted to brighten their day,” Angie Olmedo says. “Some of the people lost everything. We wanted them to feel like, ‘Yes, this is a sad day, but at the end of the day, God is still here.’ There was a little spark of hope and we wanted to cheer them up.”

Olmedo says she prayed with people in English and Spanish and used Google Translate to pray with Ukrainians.

“We wanted to let them know God is there even in the worst situations and even in those sad moments,” she says. “They were receptive to prayer. We made a really good connection.”

A delayed celebration

While the Olmedos had plans to see family after church and open presents to celebrate Christmas, Angie Olmedo says she feels she was in the right place that day.

“We spent our Christmas at our corps,” she says. “I know that everybody had plans to go see their families, but we didn’t hesitate to cancel those plans. We knew the family would be there tomorrow. I said, ‘Today, this is my family. This is my Christmas.’ Yes, it was a sad Christmas, but that was my Christmas.

“I don’t care if my plans were ruined because ‘Doing the Most Good’ is what we’re called to do. That’s our mission, and if we really believe in God, that’s what we should do. God put us there for a purpose.”

Jessica Lopez, a women’s ministry leader at the church, feels the same way. She also heard the sirens as the morning service closed and thought it might have been a visit from Santa by the fire department. Then she saw panicked people rushing into the church and knew the situation was serious.

“If the fire had happened a half–hour later, no one would have been there,” Lopez says. “We were in the right place at the right time.”

Lopez helped with the cooking and even called in her husband, Edwin, a chef with Sapphire Yacht Charters. “We felt grateful to help people,” Edwin says.

Lopez’s mother–in–law, who was visiting from the Dominican Republic, began helping the displaced residents, too, as did her five children. When the Red Cross arrived, the entire family also helped translate for the Spanish–speaking victims.

Lessons in discipleship

The day was bittersweet for the Lopezes because, while they also wanted to go home and celebrate Christmas, Jessica Lopez says they were blessed to be the hands and feet of Christ in a time of need.

“None of us minded helping, but the reason we had to help was bitter, a little bit,” she says. “It was a call to action. We saw it and took to it right away.

“We went to church for our daily bread, and we all wanted to get home to spend Christmas with our families and open presents. But this is the greatest present right here. We are serving. We are helping people who unfortunately had this tragedy happen to them on Christmas Day.”

That night at home, the family opened presents. “It made it that much more meaningful, knowing that we were not selfish but had helped so many people,” she says.

One of the last to leave that night was Sebastian Frazzetto, who had started attending the Hempstead church last July. Major Soo says the experience convinced Frazzetto and his wife, Kimberly, that The Salvation Army was their new spiritual home.

“People were scared. Kids were crying,” Frazzetto says. “It was the first time I ever saw something like that. I’m happy I was able to help out. Since I was a kid, I’ve always had the calling to help. Wherever I am, if someone is stuck in the road, I pull over. It’s natural for me. I was never in that situa­tion. I didn’t panic, and I found it joyful and natural to help.”

Frazzetto says the situation gave him a chance to explain to his two children, ages 4 and 7, how Christians step up and give in times of need. He also thinks it set a good example for the community.

“It was good for people to see what The Salvation Army is all about,” he says. “That day, a lot of people realized it’s more than a thrift store. It’s a church.”

Major Young agrees and says he is grateful that the church got to help, and that the community had the opportunity to see the inside of the church. The Hempstead mayor’s office sent the church a thank–you note for its efforts during the crisis.

“It was a team effort by the entire congregation,” Major Young says. “We tried to create some positive Christmas spirit for the kids and the families. It was a special opportunity to be witnesses for Christ.”

Major Soo led the entire group in prayer, and several among the congregation prayed with people individually. Major Young, who’s known in the neighborhood by the humorous nickname “Forever Young,” intentionally went to people and asked to pray with them. “Once they knew I was a pastor of The Salvation Army, they just opened their heart to me. We really love and care for our community.”

In retrospect, Major Soo says, her sermon “A Time To Be Born” fit the time and the place. “None of them went to church that Sunday. But they came into our church on Christmas.” Many in the Hempstead congregation “learned how to be disciples of Christ” that Christmas Day, says Major Soo.

“We were doing the act of discipleship,” she says. “As followers of Christ, that is what He calls us to do: to feed those who were destitute and hungry and in desperate need.

“We were not just sitting in the congregation. We were worshippers that day and we were disciples. I’m so grateful and proud of our congregation as disciples of Christ.”

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