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April 10, 2008

Lutherans prepare for first anniversary of Virginia Tech shooting

The Lutheran Student Movement at Virginia Tech is providing opportunities for growth while bracing for the media attention of the first anniversary of the worst campus shooting in U.S. history.

On April 16, 2007, a lone gunman killed 32 faculty and students at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in Blacksburg, Va., before killing himself.

William H. King, one of the campus pastors at Luther Memorial Lutheran Church (located across the street from Virginia Tech) said the greatest anxiety he hears among students as the first anniversary of the shooting approaches is the media attention. According to King, the feeling on campus is "Here come the (news) trucks again."

Mark Meyer, 22, a third-year junior majoring in mechanical engineering, said the campus became a media headquarters overnight. "Individually, we talked to several reporters, but after a few days that became intrusive," said Meyer. He noted that "the media coverage was not exactly matching what I was experiencing."

For many students, fresh media attention means revisiting traumatic memories.

Virginia Tech student Betsy Potter, 22, said that life on campus immediately after the shooting felt like "a fishbowl" with all of the media. "There'd be people crying at memorials and others taking pictures of them," said Potter.

Potter added that Virginia Tech students felt supported by Lutheran Student Movement chapters nationwide. "It was amazing how many other LSM (groups) sent notes from all over the country," she said.

When students returned for classes in the fall, they were in very different places, said Joanna Stallings, campus pastor, Luther Memorial. Many students were "through with (the shooting) and didn't want to hear another word about it," she said.

"The most important thing we did as a community was worship," said Stallings. Students gather weekly on Tuesday evenings for a meal and worship at the student center, and participate in Luther Memorial's Sunday services.

King said, "When push came to shove, it was the worship that provided those words of comfort — the needful, healing things that people were yearning for. There were no answers that were going to explain this."

Meyer said that the campus ministry's programs and spiritual aspects drew him in. "The big reason I kept coming back was that I got to know people and we became friends," he said.

In addition to attending to spiritual needs of LSM members and the local community, the tragedy provided an unexpected opportunity for public ministry on a national level.

The day after the shooting, King was asked to offer words from the Christian tradition to comfort a diverse community at the Virginia Tech Convocation, which included speeches by Virginia Tech faculty member Nikki Giovanni and U.S. President George W. Bush.

"I took a lot of heat for not mentioning Jesus in that convocation," said King of the nationally broadcast event. King felt it was important to provide pastoral care for the entire university community at that event, rather than make a confessional statement.

That evening, King and three other pastors led a joint worship service for members of the Virginia Tech LSM and two ELCA congregations in Blacksburg, Luther Memorial and St. Michael Lutheran Church. "That was the place where we brought the Word into reality, saying, 'This is horrible, but the Psalmist has dealt with this in a lament. This is mysterious, but Scripture does speak to this situation of grief,'" King recounted.

In the months afterward, King said he revisited the theology of the cross, a paradox from Martin Luther's teachings that states that God is revealed and God is also hidden in times of suffering. "Now I'm beginning to get a sense of what it's all about. In the midst of this, God is faithful, but there are also lots of loose ends that flop around."

"I would never ever say that God did this to Virginia Tech," said King, but, through the experience of pain and suffering at Virginia Tech, the community has been opened to other people's pain around the world.

King compared the task to preaching at a funeral: "The gospel matters in that moment or it doesn't matter at all. There's a bracing clarity in that moment."

"I sense that our students do not want their Virginia Tech experience to be dominated by this particular event. People acknowledge the loss. They're not in denial. They just don't want to be defined by that event," said King.

More …

"Naming the Pain, Speaking of Hope: Considerations for Religious Address in Time of Crisis" by William H. King, was published in the May 2007 issue of Journal of Lutheran Ethics.

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