Just before 11 a.m. on the morning of April 16, a divinity school colleague alerted Wesley F. Brown D’76 to a reported shooting at Virginia Tech, where Brown’s son Jonathan was a senior engineering major. With few details about what was going on, Brown dialed his son’s cell phone number. And Jonathan answered.
“He was in a classroom, locked down,” says Brown, who learned of the gravity of the situation several hours later. “You just started to shudder at the enormity of the tragedy. The death toll kept rising, from 12 to 20 to 30 and finally to 32, and the shooter.”
By the following day a student group had erected a makeshift memorial of 32 stones on the drill field outside Virginia Tech’s Burruss Hall.
Under the cover of darkness, Katelynn Johnson, a senior sociology-psychology major, added a stone to honor the student shooter, senior English major Seung-Hui Cho. Her family raised her to do what is morally right, not what is popular, Johnson wrote in a letter to the student newspaper. “We did not lose only 32 students and faculty members that day: we lost 33 lives.”
The following day, the stone for Cho disappeared. Johnson put it back, but the pattern continued for days.
The 33rd stone was there when the Brown family attended Jonathan’s graduation in May. The awarding of degrees in engineering, which had lost a total of 16 student and faculty members, was poignant, says Brown.
The senior who had made a tourniquet to stop the bleeding after being shot in the leg crossed the stage on crutches, pumping his fist in celebration, says Brown. And as posthumous degrees were presented to the families of the victims, “Everything stopped and people burst into tears and applause.”
The following day, the Browns visited the memorial on the drill field, where two semi-circles of stones were covered with flowers, candles, notes, poems and other mementos.
“On Cho’s stone there was a brief article about how to spot someone having emotional problems,” says Brown, and “a note that said, ‘I forgive you.’”
When he saw that the orange and maroon banner with the message “We remember 33” had been vandalized at a Baptist Church outside Blacksburg, Va., Glenn Tyndall contacted his Wesley Foundation alumni.
“I asked, ‘Thirty-two stones or 33 stones? You think about it, you pray about it, and tell me what you think.’”
He got a wide variety of responses, most of them positive about the 33, or glad that he asked them to think about it, says Tyndall.
He is aware of deep sympathy for Cho’s family, who live in Centerville, Va., and for other Korean students at Virginia Tech, says Tyndall. “And for the Korean community, which has a strong tradition of pride and shame.”
Soon after the shootings, the Korean pastor whose church shares space at Luther Memorial Lutheran Church apologized, says associate pastor Joanna Stallings.
“He said, ‘I’m so sorry. I know you don’t want us to worship in your space.’ It’s a cultural thing to try to take responsibility for what’s happened.”
In addition to assuring him that his church was still welcome, Stallings and her colleagues have tried to find opportunities for conversation and healing. A number of children from the Korean church participated in Luther Memorial’s Vacation Bible School, which was encouraging, says Stallings. “We feel strongly that welcoming them in every way we can is the thing to do.”
For Stallings, the shootings reflect a collective failure to address contemporary mental health needs.
“I think Cho is as much a victim as anyone,” she says. But she talks quietly about that in a community struggling with forgiveness.
While there is sympathy for Cho’s family, the dominant feeling seems to be that he should not be honored or recognized in the same way as the others, says Glenn Tyndall.
“This is something we really need to think about,” he adds. “If you compare this with the shooting in Amish country, those people forgave that shooter right away. I think there’s a message there for all of us. The call to forgiveness is not just to forgive the easy ones.”
A Matter of Time
“The heart of this has to do with acknowledging that forgiveness is a process that takes time—and that we should honor a variety of sentiments and reactions that people have, especially in the initial weeks,” says L. Gregory Jones, the author of Embodying Forgiveness (Eerdmans,1995).
Cho did not forfeit his humanity, even in committing a horrifying crime, nor did that place him outside the circle of God’s grace and concern, says Jones, who is professor of theology and dean of the Divinity School.
“Whether he is ultimately forgiven by God is God’s concern, not something I (or anyone else) can state with certainty. At the same time, we ought also to understand the outrage at his actions, the anger, and the desire for accountability for what he did.”
Loving our enemies means refusing to demonize those from whom we are estranged and those whom we are tempted to hate. “If proper respect can be shown, I think that the diversity of perspectives actually helps us grapple with the intensity and the immensity of the tragedy,” says Jones.