Searching for Normal
In the aftermath of last spring’s shootings at Virginia Tech, campus ministers’ message of hope and healing has new urgency.
By Elisabeth Stagg

At Virginia Tech, where on the morning of Monday, April 16, 2007, Seung-Hui Cho shot and killed 32 of his fellow students and faculty before turning his semi-automatic weapons on himself, the day has become known simply as 4/16.

The resonance with 9/11 seems as appropriate as it is troubling. Just as 9/11 changed so much, the events of 4/16 have changed Virginia Tech and given new urgency to the campus ministries of Joanna Stallings D’87 and Glenn Tyndall T’63, D’66.

Photo by Matt Gentry, The Roanoke Times
Thousands of people gather for a candlelight vigil on the Virginia Tech Drillfield Tuesday, April 17, 2007. The flag is at half-mast.

Tyndall, who has led Virginia Tech’s Wesley Foundation for 33 years, believes worrisome gaps in the mental health system should be addressed, but wants particular attention paid to gun control.

“No one needs a semi-automatic weapon, especially in Blacksburg,” says Tyndall.

For Stallings, who serves as Lutheran campus pastor, the urgency of the call to pastoral ministry has “been a dramatic change. We’re all being called upon to become experts in grief counseling. There’s been a lot of talk about how we are going to find the ‘new normal.’ As our dean of students said, ‘We must prepare to meet the unanticipated needs of the students.’”

Across the small mountain town of Blacksburg, the posters proclaiming poet-in-residence Nikki Giovanni’s rallying cry “We will prevail” had been taken down before the students returned. Norris Hall, where most of the victims died, was re-opened during the summer, but classes will no longer be held there. The two dorm rooms in Ambler Johnston, where the first two victims died, are sealed off, but the remainder of the dorm, one of the largest on campus, is back in use for student housing.

Photo by Gary Buss
Joanna Stallings D’87, Lutheran campus pastor, in front of Burruss Hall at Virginia Tech, where students began returning in August.

After 4/16, the urgency of her call to pastoral ministry has been dramatic: “We’re all being called upon to become experts in grief counseling.”

Like their colleagues, Tyndall and Stallings worry about what to expect this fall: to what extent will students be re-traumatized by returning to campus? What balance should be stuck between honoring the necessary grief for healing and the need to move ahead with hope? How can the campus avoid becoming defined by 4/16?

The Morning of April 16, 2007

The morning began as usual at the Lutheran Campus Ministry, but by 9:15 a.m., Stallings says she knew “from the blaring sirens of countless police cars, ambulances and fire trucks that something truly horrible was happening.”

She and her colleagues learned from the university Web site that the campus was on lock down following a shooting at Ambler Johnston dormitory. Tuned into televised news accounts, they heard the death toll had risen from two students to 21. Then, from a member of the congregation whose husband is on the campus police force, says Stallings, “We learned it was far worse than that.”

One of their students showed up seeking refuge. He had been trying to get to class in McBride, a classroom building next to Norris, when he heard shooting and was ordered by police to clear away.

“He came to us, about a five-minute walk, and was very rattled,” says Stallings. With the student’s help, she began e-mailing Lutheran students, many of whom are in engineering. Replies came from most, who reported that they were safe.

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