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.

The entire town was locked down, but Stallings says she trusted her daughter’s middle school principal, who is a member of her congregation, to do everything possible to protect the students there. And she left her husband, who was out of town, a message on his cell phone letting him know she was safe.

Photo by Michael Kiernan
Outside West Ambler Johnston Residence Hall, where the first two students were killed,
a family prays.

But Stallings found herself thinking back to the beginning of the academic year, when two police officers had been shot to death near campus: “It was just such a bizarre bookend to the entire academic year, that early shooting, and then 4/16.”

Glenn Tyndall was alone at the Wesley Foundation Monday morning because his wife, LaVina, who serves as his administrative assistant, was in northern Virginia to help their son and daughter-in-law move.

Shortly after 9 a.m., he received an e-mail asking about a reported shooting on campus.

“This was two hours after the original shooting,” says Tyndall, “and I had not heard anything. No alarm had been put out because they thought [the first shooting] was self-contained. By the time they realized that was not so, the second shooting was happening.”

Looking Back, Moving Ahead
     Virginia Tech Alums at Duke

Sometime before 9:45 a.m., Tyndall received the first e-mailed warning from campus. “We were notified to close and lock doors and pull shades down. The university was just about to go to an [emergency alert] system where they could text message every person with a cell phone, but it was not ready yet.”  (That system is in effect now.)

One by one, the four students who live at the Wesley Foundation made their way back safely from campus. Other students followed, seeking refuge.

“One girl was having an asthma attack because it was in the 40s with snow flurries, and she had been forced out of a building and had run all the way,” says Tyndall. “So we provided shelter for probably 15-20 students, and then as our regular students began to find out what was going on, they made their way to the Wesley Foundation because they felt secure there. They weren’t real sure about [their safety] on campus.

“We did not know that the shooter in Norris was the same as the one in Ambler Johnston,” says Tyndall. “Probably 30 to 40 students hung out all day and we watched TV and saw the awful news. At 12:30 p.m., we heard that they thought 22 people were dead. And, of course, it ended up being 10 more, plus the shooter himself.”

As students kept vigil by the TV, Tyndall tried to keep up with calls and e-mail.

“I would answer one e-mail and find 20 more, and all the phones were ringing,” says Tyndall. The calls and e-mail came from colleagues, pastors from around the annual conference, and many concerned alumni.

“Often they knew a student and wanted me to find out [how the student was],” says Tyndall. “But information was very hard to come by. Phone lines were jammed. Even some cell phone providers were jammed and could not provide service, and the campus Web site people finder went down. Everything was just jammed from overuse.”

As the bad news continued, Tyndall decided to follow dinner for the students with a discussion and prayer service. United Methodist Bishop Charlene Kammerer arrived to offer support. Twenty students decided to stay overnight. “Everybody is very close in our group,” says Tyndall. “The main focus was to provide comfort and a listening ear.” 

How Many Memorials?
     “Thirty-two stones or 33 stones?”

Classes were cancelled for Tuesday and speakers at a campus-wide convocation included President Bush, Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine, and other dignitaries. Stallings and her colleagues decided to proceed with the usual Tuesday night student gathering, adding a prayer and worship service open to the entire congregation.

That evening was the first time many of the students had seen each other since the tragedy. “It was an emotional time,” says Stallings, her voice breaking. “It was good to lay eyes on them.”

After the evening worship service, the entire congregation—about 300 people—made the five-minute walk to the candlelight vigil together. Visitors included supporters Bishop James Mauney of the Virginia Synod and Jan Tobias of Lutheran Disaster Response. “Part of our purpose was to let the students know that the congregation was with them,” says Stallings.

It turned out that neither Tyndall nor Stallings knew any of the dead or injured. At the Wesley Foundation, a couple of students remembered Cho from an English class. Several had friends who were either shot at or killed. Others knew professors who died.

Photo by Butch Usery/Duke Photography
Over the summer, Glenn Tyndall T’63, D’66 returned to Duke Divinity School for a week of personal reflection and research. "The Divinity Library is a place of refuge for me," he says. "I spent many hours there while I was a student." Tyndall has led the Virginia Tech Wesley Foundation for 33 years.

“Virginia Tech has 27,000 students, but it’s amazing how, when this happened, how small it feels,” says Tyndall.

Among the Lutheran students, one escaped the gunman by jumping out a second-story window. The roommate of a freshman was killed. At least a half-dozen students lost good friends. And the losses extended all the way to the middle school attended by Stalling’s daughter.

“Two of my daughter’s friends in 7>sup>th gradelost a parent, and four children at that school lost a parent. There was an amazing ripple effect,” she says. “A growing circle that became unbelievably big and overwhelming.” 

Both Tyndall and Stallings express gratitude for the outpouring of sympathy and support after the shootings. The overwhelming number of contacts ranged from calls, e-mail and letters to banners, cards and homemade cookies. People around the country, including students at rival schools, wore orange and maroon and held candlelight vigils.

“I think that this university and this community are going to be even stronger,” says Tyndall. “The solidarity and compassion from around the country has been absolutely amazing, but the prayers were the most important thing.”

Tyndall attributes the volume of support to the sense of identification people felt with the random nature of the shootings. “Blacksburg is anywhere U.S.A.,” he says. “If it can happen there, it can happen anywhere.”

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.”