Just up the hill, people linger in front of 33 stones that have been arranged in a semicircle around hundreds of flowers and candles. Reverence blankets the area as people pause before each stone, where friends and family have placed notes about their slain loved ones.
Large boards filled with handwritten messages stood on the drill field until Tuesday, April 24, when they were moved indoors to Squires Student Center. The boards, like the memorial stones, drew people each day to stand and read comments such as, “We have gone through so much this year together. I wish I could have been with you in this horrible time. We tried with all that we had to find you.”
As people read the boards, a certain message would trigger a sob, a lurching of shoulders, a hand to the mouth. “It’s hard,” one student said. “We don’t understand what is going on.”
In the midst of the pain and shock, Christians offer a listening ear, a tender prayer and the presence of Christ to those who are grieving. Among them are ministers of hope–chaplains from the Billy Graham Rapid Response Team.
“We talk to folks about Jesus and let them know that He is hope, that everything they are looking for at times like this can be found in Him,” said Jack Munday, managing director of the Rapid Response Team. “It is amazing to see, through prayer and a decision for Jesus Christ, that their countenance changes. Their circumstances don’t, but the hope within them changes, to know that God is with them and loves them.”
Volunteer chaplains were deployed to Virginia Tech almost immediately after reports of the shootings appeared. One of the first chaplains to arrive was Fred Meredith, of Bristol, Tenn. Within a few hours of his arrival on campus, Meredith said, “We’ve had a chance to interact with some of the students, and one of the things we ask them is ‘How are you holding up?’ As we let them share, we tell them there is hope through Jesus Christ. I was amazed at how hungry they were to hear that message of hope. That’s what we’re here for.”
During the first few days, most people in the area were in shock as they tried to fathom what had happened. Those who know Christ were not exempt from the shock and the pain, but it was clear that they had a strength that could only come from God. When students were asked what would help them through this time, many who did not know Christ said they were relying on the close-knit community on campus and around Blacksburg. Although crucial, that kind of support can go only so deep.
Sophomore Stafford Craymer said, “We know we can seek refuge in [Christ], and you don’t get that peace, that love, that comfort anywhere else but from Him.”
Many Christians found themselves ministering to those around them. Pastors and campus ministry leaders spent long days counseling their grief-stricken church members and students.
Sandy Young, a pastor at Blacksburg Christian Fellowship, said that of the 800 members of his church, at least 200 are students, faculty or staff at Virginia Tech. Young himself is a Virginia Tech alumnus who as a student lived in West Ambler Johnston Hall, where the first two shootings occurred. Young noted that his church’s vision is to be “a fellowship of ministers,” and many of his members were reaching out. “Even in times like this,” he said, “God uses His people–and His Spirit through His people–sharing His Word and demonstrating His love. That makes the Gospel advance. And out of the tears … good things happen, and grace abounds more than the sin.”
Two days after the shootings, Franklin Graham visited the campus to bring a message of hope. He was interviewed by several news outlets, and he called on the public to pray for the situation. “The kids here, the student body, the faculty, are devastated,” he said. “They need love, they need our encouragement. … they need a touch from Almighty God.”
As Franklin spoke with the news media, dozens of students gathered at the drill field for a prayer meeting organized by the campus ministers’ association. Standing or sitting in groups, the students focused their prayers on specific needs, including the victims and their families, the University administration and the campus community. And amid the public anger over the massacre, God’s grace abounded as students poured out prayers for the family of shooter Cho Seung-Hui. “I pray that You will comfort them, I pray that You will protect them,” one student prayed. “Put people in their lives to comfort them, that they would know that this action was his, not theirs.”
When the prayer meeting ended, organizers invited students to hear a short message from Franklin. Speaking through a bullhorn, Franklin said, “When we come to a time like this, we are reminded of the brevity of life, how short life is for all of us. Every one of us, one of these days, is going to cross that valley of the shadow of death. Every one of us is going to taste death. And then, after that, the Bible says there is the Judgment. We’re going to have to stand before God. My prayer is that each and every one of you will be prepared to stand before God when your life comes to an end, whenever that might be.”
As the days passed, Rapid Response chaplains continued to minister hope to people on campus and around the community. One chaplain led a journalist from China to commit his life to Christ. Chaplains came alongside local pastors who carried the burden of trying to counsel so many people who were affected by the shootings. One pastor, Dick Gilbert of Slusser’s Chapel Church of God, was just beginning his shift as the volunteer chaplain on call at Montgomery Regional Hospital on the day of the shootings when wounded people, family members and friends began to arrive. Soon hundreds of people were waiting anxiously for word about their loved ones.
That day, and for the next week, Gilbert spent many hours listening to, praying with and supporting victims and their families in addition to his usual responsibilities with his church. Rapid Response chaplains provided a chance for Gilbert and other pastors to tell their stories and to begin to process what they themselves had experienced.
Chaplains also spoke with hundreds of federal, state, local and University law enforcement personnel, many who had seen the deeply disturbing crime scene. One officer said he was haunted by the sound of slain students’ cell phones ringing in Norris Hall, where most of the killing took place.
And of course the chaplains cared for many grieving students. On April 23, the day that classes resumed, a student named Matt was reading the message boards on the drill field. He was overwhelmed by the expressions of love from so many people, and he mentioned that to a chaplain standing nearby. The chaplain talked about God’s love and explained that God wants to have a relationship with us and that He sent Jesus to die for our sins to make that possible. “I’ve never heard it explained like that before,” Matt said.
“Are you ready to start that relationship with the Lord?” the chaplain asked.
“Absolutely,” Matt said. The two prayed together, and Matt found that even in the darkest of times, the hope of Jesus Christ shines in the hearts of those who know Him.