When four family members died in a domestic-violence tragedy in Glade Spring, Va., United Methodists at Emory & Henry College and State Street United Methodist Church responded to help the community grieve and find hope.
Kristin Palmer, 46, her son Griffin Palmer, 17, and Palmer's mother, Nancy Griffin, 74, were killed by gunfire in the Griffin home on Feb. 25. Kristin Palmer's father, Terry Griffin, 75, was injured and hospitalized. Also dead was the shooter, Kevin Dale Palmer, 44, Kristin Palmer's husband.
Terry Griffin is a retired professor who taught German to Emory & Henry students for many years. Nancy Griffin was also retired after serving as an administrative assistant at the college for several years.
EMORY & HENRY
The Emory & Henry community began to learn of the early-morning horror about midday on Feb. 25, according to the Rev. Mary K Briggs, college chaplain.
“The students came in and said, ‘What can we do?’” Briggs said. “We realized we needed to have a prayer vigil.”
At 8 p.m. on Feb. 25, about 75 people attended an outdoor vigil organized by Briggs and students in freezing temperatures.
On the evening of Feb. 27, a visitation and memorial service for the victims was held in the Emory & Henry Memorial Chapel with about 250 attending. The Rev. David St. Clair, retired Holston clergy, former college staff, and neighbor to the Griffins, officiated at the funeral.
On Feb. 28, Briggs and the Rev. David Jackson, pastor at Emory United Methodist Church, officiated at the graveside service at Holston Conference Cemetery.
The response of the Emory & Henry community to a family so connected to the college was inspiring, Briggs said. Glade Spring is about three miles from the college’s home in Emory, Va.
“Emory really has a way of pulling together,” she said. “This was the first tragedy since the tornado in Glade Spring [in April 2011]. It’s amazing how the people come out and cling together.”
When the staff at State Street United Methodist Church began to hear about the shooting, they opened the church for prayer and began to plan afternoon and evening prayer services.
“When we realized the gravity of the situation, we wanted to respond,” said the Rev. Jeff Wright, senior pastor at the Bristol, Va., church.
The church is located across the street from Virginia High School, where Kristin Palmer taught drama, Wright explained. “A number of our students go to Virginia High and had [Palmer] as a teacher.”
State Street Church has a long relationship with the high school, hosting teacher luncheons and inviting staff and students over for prayer and other activities. Many Virginia High students walk across the church lawn on their way to and from school, Wright said.
About 25 attended a 3 p.m. service, immediately after school, and another 30 attended an 8 p.m. service, said Wright.
“We had a very good response from the kids and adults, too. Talking seemed to help. I tried to tell them the best thing they could remember was how [Palmer] lived, not how she died.”
On Feb. 26, Wright and the Rev. Mark Hicks, associate pastor, were invited to attend a Virginia High faculty meeting. The pastors also participated in a Feb. 26 Virginia High memorial service, connected by Skype with a simultaneous memorial service at Patrick Henry High School, where Griffin Palmer attended.
Several commented on the influence the Palmer-Griffin family had on the community. The Rev. Jonathan Jonas, pastor at First United Methodist Church of Marion, Va., wrote a blog about his former Emory & Henry professor that was shared and commented on by many through Facebook.
“One of the beauties of a small college is that it is less institution than community,” Jonas wrote. “So, after we completely remodeled my schedule as advisor and advisee, I began to get to know Dr. Terry Griffin in our new relationship as professor and student … Today, I just want to hug him.”
Briggs said that an exhausted Griffin attended the visitation at Emory & Henry Chapel, listening to student after student share the impact his daughter had as an encouraging drama teacher.
“I heard him say several times, ‘Please do something for me. Go out and be a great teacher, go change the world, go influence someone else the way my daughter has influenced you,’” Briggs said.
Caleb Johnston, a member at Beech Grove United Methodist Church in Bristol, Va., was Palmer’s student at Virginia High. Today, Johnston is a student at Emory & Henry who spoke about Palmer at the college’s prayer vigil.
“What I remember of Kristin is, she was always a person to make us laugh,” Johnston said. “She was also a person who wanted your best every day.”
When he spoke at the prayer vigil, Johnston described his former teacher as a person who was “always there to pick you up when you were down.”
Students at both Emory & Henry and Virginia High are now expressing concern about domestic violence and beginning prevention and awareness advocacy.
When the Feb. 25 tragedy occurred, Emory & Henry students were in the midst of an “End It” campaign to stop human slavery. On Feb. 27, students wore purple ribbons in a call to action against domestic violence.
“We’re still discussing ideas about how to raise awareness for domestic violence,” Briggs said. “Some of our students are passionate about this because they’ve been made aware of these situations of abuse. They don’t want people to forget.”
On March 13, a group of Virginia High students met with State Senator Bill Carrico, requesting a domestic-violence bill that they call, “Griffin’s Law,” in memory of their late teacher and her son.
Annette Spence is editor of The Call, the Holston Conference newspaper.