Parishioners at First Presbyterian Church on Sunday described optometrist Tom Little as humble and devoted servant of God, who was killed doing what he was called to do.
Little was part of a 10-member International Assistance Mission medical team bringing health care to isolated Afghan villages gunned downed in Afghanistan last week. The Taliban has claimed responsibility, alleging that the group was spying and trying to convert Muslims to Christianity. IAM officials say it is a Christian organization but does not proselytize.
Little and his wife Libby maintained a home in Delmar but spent much of their lives in Afghanistan, after moving there in the late 1970s. The work in Afghanistan was one of the many missions the Schenectady church on Union Street has sponsored over the years.
Parishioner Jean Tomhave of Schenectady recalled when the Littles went out on their first mission some 30 years ago.
“He was so unassuming and yet so dedicated. He loved what he did. He inspired us every time he talked, very humble,” she said.
Another parishioner, Marjorie Johnson, of Glenville called the Littles “special people,” who returned to the area very occasionally to give updates about their work to various sponsoring churches. Libby Little had come back to the United States because one of her daughters is soon to give birth. Libby Little had been scheduled to give an update at the church Sunday.
“I was looking forward to seeing her and giving her a hug — and then this happened,” Johnson said.
Members of the congregation said that the recent act of violence would only draw more attention and interest to cause of helping people around the world.
“I think they’ll just go and do what the Lord says,” said Judy Austin of Glenville who described Tom as a nice, quiet person who did what the Lord wanted him to do.
The Rev. Larry Roff, senior pastor at the church, said the parishioners are coping as best as can be expected. At Sundays two morning services, Roff reflected on Psalm 139, which talks about how God ordained people’s lives.
“We belong to a God who has planned out our life in a wonderful perfect plan,” he said.
Tom Little’s death was part of the Lord’s plan, Roff said. “He was right there calling Tom home.”
Libby Little would have been on that trip had she not returned to be with her expecting daughter. The couple has three daughters.
“There’s some small consolation for the daughters that they didn’t lose both of their parents,” Roff said.
Little’s burial will be in Afghanistan. There are no immediate plans for a memorial service in this country but Roff said a memorial to Tom Little here could happen in the weeks or even months ahead.
The Littles are loving, dedicated and caring people, said the Rev. Michael Alford, pastor emeritus who has known them for 35 years.
One of the daughters has been working with the United Nations in Baghdad and she was going to travel to Kabul to see how she could assist in the situation.
First Presbyterian has a strong connection to other countries as it strives to donate 50 percent of its collection to its mission projects. Alford said it supports missions in 21 different countries. It’s worked in Afghanistan since the early 1950s when an assistant minister left to do service work. In the early 1960s, the church supported a couple who went there to teach. Then came the Littles.
The church in 2003 raised money to allow Little to purchase a Land Rover for a trip that Little and two other men were taking to bring eye care to rural villages in Afghanistan, according to a September 2003 Daily Gazette story. Little was working for a program called NOOR, which is an Arabic word that means light.
Missionaries are not allowed in Afghanistan but that does not mean that Little never had a chance to talk about Christianity, according to Alford.
“The law is that if somebody asks you about your faith, you can share it.”
The tragedy has gotten a great deal of media attention. A cameraman from the ABC television program “Good Morning America” interviewed both Roff and Alford on Sunday for a story.
Roff said while Little impacted a tremendous number of people in life, his death and how he lived could influence countless more. However, Little would not want a lot of attention.
“Tom would say ‘don’t look at me. Look at Jesus,’ ” Roff said. “That’s how he got to Afghanistan.”