By ANDREW NELSON, Staff Writer | Published January 15, 2009
The community at Virginia Tech continues to knit itself together after a rampaging gunman killed more than 30 students and faculty in 2007.
As the second anniversary of the largest mass killing on a U.S. campus approaches, the Catholic priest serving at the university said a strength the church can bring to fearful and confused students is its mindfulness of community rituals.
The church view of the “intimacy of God with the world” is a strong perspective during times of crisis, Father John Grace said. The Catholic understanding of ritual that moves people and their emotions to a new way of thinking is powerful, he said.
“It is probably the strongest card we have,” said Father Grace, who just finished his third semester at the school.
More than 30 members of the National Association of Diocesan Directors of Campus Ministry, meeting in Atlanta Jan. 5-6, discussed how to support a faith community when students at a university are reeling from a crisis.
During the two-day conference, speakers from Northern Illinois University explained the response at that campus after a gunman murdered six students last February.
Father Grace and graduate student Jeff Yacup talked about the Virginia Tech shooting when 32 students and professors were killed in the deadliest campus shooting in history on April 16, 2007. Father Grace wore his burgundy Virginia Tech polo shirt and Yacup had a wristband, “We are all Hokies,” an expression of solidarity that first appeared on Facebook and became the phrase linking Virginia Tech and all those hurting for them worldwide.
The two men spoke about their experiences of that April day.
In Blacksburg, Va., Yacup slept. Like any college student, the senior at Virginia Tech was catching up on his sleep. A phone call from his worried mother in Georgia woke him.
News reports were broadcasting about deaths on the campus. “Every couple of hours the number would go up,” said Yacup. His family worships at Our Lady of Perpetual Help Church, Carrollton.
Father Grace, not yet assigned to the campus, had just ended a 16-year stint as a Catholic chaplain at another university in Virginia. He was starting as a member of the Paulist religious community in Chicago.
Watching the reports on the day of the shooting, Father Grace desired to serve where he was needed. In three months, he left the Paulists to return to Virginia as a campus minister, which he sees as shaping students into thriving Catholics.
That July, he began to work with the Catholic university community at Virginia Tech, which numbers some 7,000. He described the early days as an emotional roller coaster for students, from troubled memories one minute to run-of-the-mill college problems the next.
In his first days there, Catholic students took him on a “spiritual walk” around the campus, showing him the shrines to the victims and Norris Hall, where most of the killings took place, while students told their stories.
“It broke your heart, that shrine of death and violence,” he said.
He visited students at the largest Korean parish in Virginia because the shooter, Seung-Hui Cho, was Korean. Father Grace said the Korean community looked at the event as a collective shame. He said he wanted them to know the church welcomed them. Now, a group for Korean Catholics has started at the campus ministry.
Father Grace said many are surprised the university had the largest class of first year students the fall after the shootings. Parents focused on safety concerns, he said. But young people focused on the student unity displayed at the televised memorial services.
“They saw a huge community in a group hug,” he said.
As time has passed, the shootings divide the university community between those there for the shooting and those who came after. Father Grace paid attention to that.
“I never used the pronoun ‘we’ in the first semester,” he said.
For Yacup, the shootings bound together the students who were there and made them more respectful of each other.
Father Grace said the value the church puts on community is a powerful resource. And everyone was reminded of their community after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks as events drew people together, he said.
“You gather the folks. Put them in a space together. You give them a sense of perspective on all of this,” he said.
For Yacup, the murders are a part of his life and his faith experience, but not all of it.
“It does sting every now and then. It is part of me as long as I don’t let it govern who I am,” he said.