In the early hours of Friday morning, Stephen and Emily McAlpin awoke to the sound of what they thought were fireworks. Within moments, however, it became clear what was happening outside was no celebration.
The story that gripped the nation was unfolding in their front yard.
In a hijacked Mercedes SUV, Boston Marathon bombing suspects Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev were speeding through the streets of Watertown, Massachusetts, with as many as a dozen police cars in pursuit. Reports say the officers had to dodge homemade bombs hurled from the careening vehicle.
At roughly 12:50 a.m., the SUV screeched to a halt in front of the McAlpins' house. The brothers opened fire, igniting a gun battle with police that involved more than 200 rounds of ammunition, additional makeshift bombs, and the death of the older Tsarnaev—"Suspect #1."
With the sounds of terror—and even a couple of bullets—entering their home, Stephen and Emily huddled under a table and cried out to Christ. I corresponded with Stephen [Twitter | Blog], church planting resident at Hope Fellowship Church in Cambridge, Massachusetts, about the night he and Emily will never forget.
On Friday, my wife Emily and I witnessed firsthand the gunfight between police and terrorists in Watertown, Massachusetts, as it happened in our front yard. It was like nothing we'd ever experienced. We first heard the gunshots and an explosion from our bedroom and, after calling 911, crawled with our dog to safety under the kitchen table where we cried out to Jesus for help, and then later into the bathtub for better cover, where we continued praying. We spent a lot of time in fear of death, even after the gunfire ceased and the police checked on us. In fact, we were on lockdown almost the entire day, hiding under our kitchen table as police disarmed explosives around us and searched for the terrorist who had escaped them. We later discovered that during the gunfight seven bullets had hit our home, with one going through our living room wall into our TV and one striking our car. The whole experience was terrifying and utterly unexpected, like a nightmare. Now, we just feel blessed to be alive and safe, and we believe it's only because God answered our prayers.
Listening to your interview with CNN, I was struck by the peace you seemed to experience amid the terror. Where did this come from, and what was it like?
I believe the peace we experienced came from the Holy Spirit, who was a guiding light to us in a terrifyingly dark time. We experienced the Spirit's peace most fully while praying. It was a kind of peace that felt like someone else was sharing it with us. As I led my wife in prayer there was like a bright light that calmed my thoughts and helped me to feel that life is a gift and that it's all about Jesus. In our hearts we felt calmness and even joy at the idea of us finally being with God together. And physically, it was like God's arms were being wrapped around us to cover us. Altogether, the peace we experienced led us into worship and gave us real hope. It was otherworldly.
You reflected that, while hovering under the kitchen table and later in the bathtub, you just held your wife and prayed. What were you praying?
Under the table, after I told my wife that I loved her, my prayer was basically: "God, thank you for the life you've given us together. Thank you for your grace. Oh God, protect us. Jesus, save us! We need you, save us! You're our only hope. God, please show us grace by giving us safety. Please cover over us and surround us with your angels. Please protect our neighbors, too, and show them your grace." Then I was just quiet and every so often prayed, "Oh Jesus, save us!" as I held my wife and dog.
When we later moved to the bathtub, shock was starting to set in, and we were trying to figure out what was happening, but we kept holding one another and praying. That time is kind of a blur, but I remember we were thanking God for his grace in protecting us thus far and asking him to quickly bring it all to an end.
What would you say to those who find themselves in situations of fear?
Pray, worshipfully. In situations of fear, there are really only two ways you can respond: worshiping God or not worshiping God. When you're fearing for your life, that choice becomes a lot simpler. You strangely crave a meaningful life, if only for a moment. Don't let that moment pass you by. Remember that Jesus is our only hope for true, meaningful life. Express your faith in him. Enjoy him—who he is and what he does—in that moment. Ask him to do the things that only he does, like gracefully saving sinners for his glory. He is faithful to answer.
If he rescues you in that moment, that's an amazing thing that will change you and others forever. If he doesn't rescue you in that moment, at least you'll have had one of the best, sweetest moments of your entire life as you worshiped him in the threat of evil and death. God can do incredible things through worshipful, Christ-centered prayer.
What has God been teaching you and your wife in the hours since the experience?
The hours since the experience have been surreal, like waking up from a nightmare. A lot of people are, like us, trying to figure out how to move on. We recognize we're still healing, so we trust there's still a lot for God to teach us. Yet as we've looked back so far, God has been teaching us to remember that you can die any moment, so life is exceedingly precious. We have life in this world only because of Jesus and only for Jesus. He's our only hope for true life—and this is true for everyone else. We've been challenged to cultivate a living hope in Jesus all the time—not just during crises—and to share our hope with others still lost in the darkness and unsure of how to overcome it.
In the aftermath of the event, we've been humbly surprised by how simply sharing our hope in Jesus during this dark time is making an impact on our neighbors, our city, and even people all around the world. We think God answered our prayers so that others might know how he can enter into and redeem anyone's story through the person and work of Jesus Christ.
Matt Smethurst serves as associate editor for The Gospel Coalition. You can follow him on Twitter.