The Hardest Question

“The hardest question I had was ‘Why?’ ” says Stallings. “And my response was that despite what happened, we are in relationship with a loving God. I believe that what happened is a sign of our own brokenness, of the collective way we have failed with the mental health system.”

A Lutheran pastor from Columbine, Colo., contacted Stallings’ office offering support and advice, including the warning that “This event will hi-jack every conversation and every experience,” says Stallings. “The danger is that we become defined by what happened that day.”

But Virginia Tech, whose motto is “Invent the Future,” seems determined to avoid that.

Photo by Michael Kiernan
The April 23rd Balloon Memorial Ceremony on the drill field was timed to coincide with the first shots fired in Norris Hall a week before.

“We do not want to let this dominate all we do, yet providing support is critical. The incoming class has no experience of what happened, so we do have to collect ourselves. We do not want Virginia Tech to be defined by 4/16, but by the way we respond.”

“I’ve discovered that students have a tremendous power to heal and minister to one another,” says Tyndall. “That’s one of the great lessons for me as one of the adults in this. They weren’t lined up down my hall waiting for counsel as much as they were taking advantage of the environment as a safe space to come and hug and cry and be accepted, and talk.”

Among a number of other resources, including an extensive library of support materials on trauma and loss, Stallings and her colleagues will have periodic visits from the Lutheran Disaster Response Team for two full years.

For Tyndall and Stallings the trauma of 4/16 resurfaces quickly, leaving them overwhelmed by grief and making attention to their own needs more important than ever. “I have had experiences of finding myself crying unexpectedly and then realizing that it’s connected to that day,” says Stallings.

During Holy Week, just before the shootings, Stallings had begun training for her first triathlon, a challenge inspired by her 50th birthday. “I told the friends I was training with last spring that I really needed their support to keep at it,” she said. “And I’m glad that I did.”

Rising at 6 a.m. to train every morning, she felt positive about beginning her day by doing something for herself. After the July 22 triathlon, she and her husband and daughter spent their family vacation at Ocracoke, N.C., where she had served a summer field placement as a divinity student.

Tyndall took a week-long summer sabbatical at the Divinity School, supported by a United Methodist congregation from the Western N.C. conference. He spent hours in the Divinity School Library researching the issues of mental health and gun control.

He was shocked that a student with a history of mental illness was able to purchase not one, but two, semi-automatic handguns, and sufficient ammunition for such devastation.

“I’m sure the opponents of gun control will come right back and argue that Cho would have found a way to get the guns illegally,” says Tyndall. “But I still think that’s a cop out. As people of faith and as good citizens we ought to do what we can to make it difficult for people with problems to get a handgun.”

He has no patience with the argument that an armed faculty member or student might have been able to prevent the tragedy, adds Tyndall. “In my opinion, [arming faculty and students] would just create the possibility for more havoc.”

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