Blacksburg, diocese seek shalom after April 16 shootings


Blacksburg, diocese seek shalom after April 16 shootings


ERD provides a $20,000 grant for counseling

By Christie M. Wills

They're calling it a "Hokie Cry."

It's described as a wave of emotion that washes over people in the Virginia Tech community, sometimes out of the blue, sometimes when they thought they were doing just fine.

Christ Church, Blacksburg, parishioner Bob Miller remembers one Hokie Cry on a Sunday morning. "It was the day when one of the lectionary readings ended with 'and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.' The layreader had to collect herself to get through it and lots of us cried along with her," said Miller.

Although Blacksburg was clearly the epicenter, people across the diocese felt the pain of the events of April 16. Most churches in the New River convocation have parishioners who are employed at Virginia Tech. Even parishes too far away to have Tech employees often have parents or grandparents of current Tech students.

So on Saturday, April 21, Bishop Neff Powell called a diocesan meeting to provide guidance on how the Church might respond, especially on the first Sunday after the shooting. On several days' notice, over 40 clergy and lay leaders across the diocese attended a daylong gathering at St. Thomas, Christiansburg, to pray and gain strength for the journey.

New York psychologist Dr. Karen Binder-Brynes, a trauma counselor for the Episcopal Church who has worked with Katrina survivors and firefighters at the World Trade Center, led the program.

"You have my deepest respect for all you've been through," said Dr. Karen, who spoke to the group via speakerphone. She explained that the closer people are to the site of a traumatic event, the more affected they are. She said that it was normal to swing between feeling numb and feeling overwhelmed, as well as feeling sadness, loss, hopelessness and anger.

"Senseless tragedies like this render us feeling out of control which is often a shameful feeling. That's one reason why we may have found ourselves glued to the TV, looking for answers," she said.

"A Mary Tragedy"

By late afternoon on April 16, many diocesan parishes had made plans for evening vigils and prayer services [including St. John's and St. Elizabeth's, Roanoke, and St. Stephen's, Forest]. Throughout the week, more parishes held services of remembrance and many noted a moderate number of visitors in their midst.

At the same time, the staff at Christ Church, Blacksburg, had determined that while no Episcopal parishioners were among the killed or injured, the web of connectedness within the parish and the Tech community was intimate. Some parishioners eventually attended three or four or more funerals for friends, colleagues and students.

All week, the parish phone rang frequently. According to secretary Judie Marsh, the majority of calls were either reporters or folks from outside the parish who called to offer condolences or assistance.

On Tuesday, April 17, interim rector Elizabeth Morgan started her day by doing a live interview at 7 a.m. with a cable news anchor outside the parish office. She said one of the more bizarre phone calls she fielded that week was from a filmmaker in New York who wanted to arrive the next day and follow her around with a cameraman to produce a documentary. Morgan turned him down.

Canterbury chaplain Scott Russell was en route home from a trip to Germany and did not learn what had happened until he passed through customs late on Monday. He returned to Blacksburg on Tuesday evening in time to join the Canterbury Club at the candlelight prayer vigil on campus.

In his absence, the diocesan office dispatched two trauma-trained clergy, the Revs. Stephen Stanley, Christ Church, Roanoke, and Fran McCoy of St. Mark's, St. Paul/All Saints, Norton, in response to a request for additional chaplains by the campus student activities office. Stanley, McCoy, Hollins Chaplain Jan Fuller and Russell all reported spending a portion of their time on campus shielding grieving people from media cameras and from "the howling evangelists with the bullhorn calls for campus repentance echoing across the drill field," according to a sermon that Stanley later wrote.

As the days passed, it became clear that while the tragedy was intense in Southwestern Virginia, even life-changing for some, there was very little that people could do in response, except pray. In his column for "Connections," Bishop Neff Powell assured all that "prayer will come into the locked rooms of fear in our hearts and begin to restore a measure of shalom."

As Elizabeth Foster, Director of Christian Education at Christ Church, wrote in an email on April 19, "The most helpful thing at this point is to pray. That is kind of frustrating for those of us who are Marthas, but there is little we can do. We are depending on the Marys to pray for our strength and wisdom."

World Response

As the news spread, Episcopalians across the country and Anglicans around the world reached out to share their grief and support. Bishop Powell said one of the first emails he received was from Bishop David James in Bradford, England. Two particularly humbling emails of condolence were received on behalf of the diocese: one from the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Seoul expressing the shock and sorrow of Korean Catholics and one from the Rev. Bol Deng, a protégé of the late Rev. Marc Nikkel, in war-torn Sudan.

Several dioceses, including Delaware, Colorado, Western Washington and Utah, made response to the tragedy on the front page or within their diocesan newspapers. The Diocese of Delaware opened their annual convention with prayerful silence for the murder victims and for all young people. Their convention keynote speaker, George Packard, Bishop Suffragan for Chaplaincies, had also met with Bishop Powell in New York (where Powell had been on sabbatical) to plan the April 20 gathering for leaders in this diocese. Utah Bishop Carolyn Tanner Irish wrote a poem which she read at an interfaith service of remembrance at the University of Utah. Bishop Marc Andrus of the Diocese of California wrote about the event in his online blog. Andrus is a Virginia Tech alumnus and credits the Christ Church Canterbury Club as his gateway to the Episcopal Church.

Visits to the diocesan website quadrupled over normal daily traffic, peaking at about 2,000 hits per day in the first week. Within 36 hours, the diocese created an online presence to serve as a streamlined clearinghouse for up-to-date information. It prominently featured two buttons: one to request help and the other to offer help to others. Thanks to a small Episcopal Relief and Development (ERD) grant, the site will be a permanent feature of the diocesan website. In times between emergencies, it will be a place to find resources on disaster preparedness. Visit <a href=""></a>

Moving Forward

In a late May interview, campus chaplain Scott Russell said that looking back, much of the first week was a blur. For the most part, he spent the days on campus, running on adrenaline. Then, over the next few weeks, he and the rest of the Christ Church staff called on those they had not yet seen at church.
"Some people process grief differently. Some get very quiet or retreat, which is okay, but we&#39;re checking on them," said Russell.

In the last remaining days of classes, the core group of the Canterbury Club spent a lot of time together.

"Many folks donated food so we had plenty to eat and often ate together. When we went out for a meal, we saw the look of recognition in other people&#39;s eyes; that they were touched in the same way," said Russell.

Russell thanked those in the parish, in the diocese and around the world who prayed for the students and wrote letters to them. Youth from across the country including San Francisco and Arizona sent prayers written on colorful fabric in the style of Tibetan Buddhist prayer flags. The campus ministry at Christ Church also received many donations, such as from the youth of Grace Memorial, Lynchburg who sent $539 from a sub sandwich fundraiser. In all, about $5000 in donations was added to the newly formed Christ Church campus ministry endowment.

On the last Sunday before graduation, Katie Stanhagen, the president of the parish&#39;s Canterbury Club thanked the congregation for their support of the students. Russell said she told parishioners that they had modeled for her what it meant to be in a loving Christian community.

The vestry of Christ Church has appointed a committee to implement an approximately $20,000 ERD grant that was given to support counseling efforts for the wider public. Since the area was well-supplied with grief counselors in the first weeks of the tragedy, the parish committee has focused on using the grant to reach out to the community in the summer and into the school year. Among the options being considered: an ongoing, ecumenical series of community events such as films and lectures to provide a place to work through grief together; construction of a community labyrinth; specialized "care-for-the-caregiver" support, particularly for Tech faculty and staff.

Russell expects to have a busy summer as he is leading the parish since interim rector Elizabeth Morgan was called to a parish in South Carolina. He&#39;ll also begin to contact incoming Episcopal students and will rotate with other campus ministers in staffing an information table during the orientation season. And he is looking forward to preaching at the increased number of weddings to be held at Christ Church this summer.

"Our parish is a very organic place; we&#39;re able to take what comes. But I&#39;m looking forward to the sense of joy that these weddings will bring," said Russell. //

To read updates of the events as they were posted and first-hand journal entries about the tragedy, as well as find information on disaster preparedness, visit <a href=""></a>


Archived with permission of author.

Original Source: The Episcopal Diocese of Southwestern Virginia
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Christie M. Wills




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Christie M. Wills, “Blacksburg, diocese seek shalom after April 16 shootings,” The April 16 Archive, accessed June 21, 2024,