CRANFORD, N.J. Every Friday at 2 a.m. JoAnne Whalen’s cell-phone alarm goes off and the 60-year-old wakes up in her Bethany, Okla., bedroom, boots up her computer and watches a prayer service streaming live from central New Jersey.
The man singing hymns on Whalen’s screen in the middle of the night is Steven Nagy, a Newark native who ministers at the International House of Prayer, which provides round-the-clock prayer and worship, 365 days a year.
He’s also the driver who pulled over last June when Whalen’s 37-year-old son lost control of his motorcycle and crashed into a guardrail.
And he’s the man who ran toward Anthony Whalen as he lay dying on the shoulder of Route 78 and stayed with him, whispering prayers into his ear, as the motorcyclist took his last breath.
That vision, of a stranger giving comfort to her son in his final moments, is what now gives JoAnne Whalen solace.
“I’ve always had this image of Steven, even before I knew his name, holding ‘Ant’ the way I would hold him, and it was everything I needed,” Whalen said from Oklahoma. “It was everything I’d hoped for if I couldn’t be there.”
To many motorists, an accident is mostly an inconvenient traffic jam. Little is ever known about the victim, except, perhaps, for a few details in the paper.
But more than a year after the June 16, 2012, accident that killed Whalen, his death remains part of Nagy’s life. Nagy couldn’t save the stranger by the side of the road, but what he did that day, and continues to do, helped lead a woman back to her faith.
Anthony Whalen was fully aware of the dangers of riding a motorcycle. It was March 2012, and the graphic artist had just moved from California – where the roads are wide and more motorcycle friendly – back home to Scotch Plains with his longtime girlfriend, Kim Karlen.
That night in June, somewhere near Hillside, he lost control and flew into a guardrail.
It had been a long day at work for Nagy, a 39-year-old religious minister and civil engineer. As he drove home to Newark, he saw the line of red taillights freeze in front of him.
Nagy saw a figure lying a few yards away beneath the guardrail. As he drew closer, he heard strained, wheezing breaths and saw the young man’s eyes flickering, his torso bleeding badly. Other motorists stopped, too, including a doctor and a young woman.
With the crowd gathered, Nagy knelt down next to the man and did the only thing he said he could think that might help: He prayed. “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.”
The next day Nagy said he went on NJ.com where he found a short posting about the accident. To his surprise, Nagy said, Karlen’s brother reached out and invited him to the funeral.
A mother’s nightmare
Whalen first met Nagy at the funeral. They began emailing, infrequently at first, and then more often. In the exchanges, Whalen said she often cursed about how betrayed she felt by God for taking her son, and Nagy would respond with soothing words and prayer verses.
“I felt attacked – personally attacked,” said Whalen, who was raised Catholic.
“I felt, how dare you take him? How dare you? I was raging that it could be so easily done with so little thought.”
But after months of almost daily communication with Nagy, Whalen became a devout follower of his program, which she watches over the live web stream.
On the one-year anniversary of her son’s death, JoAnne Whalen reunited with Nagy for a memorial picnic. Four days later, she and her son Brian drove to Cranford’s International House of Prayer Eastern Gate to see Nagy’s ministry live.
“Our relationship developed from me longing for Anthony to a place where, somehow, I could get to Anthony through Steven.”
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