At first, it seemed as if the Virginia Tech shootings would only affect the congregations closest to the campus where 33 were killed. Although Blacksburg is located in the Virginia Conference of the United Methodist Church, several Holston churches are within 20 miles of the Virginia Tech campus.
As the April 16 incident developed into the deadliest school shooting in U.S. history, it also became clear that Holston’s ties to the southwest Virginia college were more than a few miles deep. The heartstrings extended all the way to Holston’s opposite border in north Georgia, where Ft. Olgethorpe United Methodist Church opened its doors for the community to join in prayer.
People who call themselves members of Holston churches are also Virginia Tech students, faculty, alumni. They include an 18-year-old freshman whose resident assistant was killed. They include a retired professor who was in Norris Hall on the day of the shootings, and who watched in horror as students climbed out of the windows to safety.
People who call themselves members of Holston churches are also campus ministers, pastoral counselors, police chaplains. They include an Abingdon District preacher who counseled police officers who were on the scene of the carnage. They included college leaders who helped their own grieving students reach out to Hokie students by collecting candles and baking cookies.
People who call themselves members of Holston churches are Oak Ridge war veterans, a Lebanon bus driver, a thankful parent whose child is safe. All were deeply affected by the shockwave from Blacksburg. Here are a few of their stories.
Bonnie Graham, 18, is a member of Norton UMC in Big Stone Gap District, and a freshman at Virginia Tech. She remembers how excited she was to meet her resident assistant last fall. Her name was Caitlin Hammaren. “She was the type of person who was never in a bad mood,” says Graham. “Her door was always open.”
Graham didn’t have classes on the morning of April 16, so she was asleep when her mother called, before the cell phone circuits became overloaded. For the rest of the day, Graham stayed in the dorm, watching the news with her dormmates and Hammaren’s boyfriend. They knew Hammaren’s class was in the building where the shooter took the most lives. Hammaren didn’t answer her cell phone. “But we hoped that she had been evacuated or was injured – or was just OK.”
In the late afternoon, Graham went home to Norton, following the advice of Virginia Tech officials who told students to “go where you can get the most hugs.” Graham called Hammaren’s boyfriend every half hour, hoping for news.
At 11:30 p.m., Graham received the final phone call of the day. Her R.A. had perished at the hands of the shooter.
Ken Horton is an officer for the Virginia State Police. On April 29, he was baptized and joined First Hillsville UMC (Wytheville District) on profession of faith. But on April 16, he was assigned to Virginia Tech for what he thought involved one fatality and several injuries. Two memories stand out for him. One was the moment that he and about 200 other officers, crowded in a small auditorium, learned that more than 30 people had been killed. “I’ll always remember where I was when 9/11 happened, and I will always remember being in that auditorium,” says Horton. He was also impressed by students who offered kind words and baked goods as he provided security for the next few days. “This was the most devastating thing that was ever going to happen to these people, and they were worried about how we were doing.”
The Rev. Ken Meredith, pastor of the Lebanon Circuit in Abingdon District, is a bus driver for the Virginia Tech sports teams. In March, he drove the marching band to the NCAA basketball tournament in Columbus, Ohio. He remembers having a long conversation about faith with a nice young man – “I think he played the tuba,” says Meredith. On the morning after the shootings, Meredith received a phone call. It was from the parents of Ryan Clark, who found Meredith’s card in their son’s wallet. They told the pastor that their son was impressed by him, had enjoyed talking to him. “They were concerned that I would learn about his death on the news,” says Meredith. When he was interviewed for The Call, Meredith was preparing to pick up several Tech families at the airport – families of the deceased.
The Rev. Amy Cook is pastor at Trinity UMC, Oak Ridge District. She was struck by the number of elderly parishioners who were deeply touched by the shootings. “I was suprised by the connection,” explains Cook. “A lot of these people are war veterans who lost their friends in their late teens and early 20s. They had to re-process a lot of stuff ... They connected it with a loss of life and relationships, but also a loss of promise.” During a special service at Trinity, Cook allowed 33 candles, remnants of the Easter altar, to burn out one by one.
The college campuses took it especially hard. At Holston’s three colleges and five Wesley Foundations, many of the students have close friends at Tech. Some also knew the victims, and asked not to be quoted. Several services and prayer vigils were held. Led by the Rev. Tim Kobler, students at Emory & Henry College collected tea-light candles for vigils at Virginia Tech. At Radford University’s Wesley Foundation, only 17 miles from the Virginia Tech campus, Director Martee Buchanan helped her students bake cookies and deliver them to Virginia Tech’s Wesley Foundation. On the day of the shootings, Radford’s Wesley Foundation was filled with students. “Some were glued to the TV,” says Buchanan. “Some didn’t want to see it, they just wanted to be there. There was a real need for connection and community.”
Several messages were relayed to Virginia Conference leaders from the Holston Conference office in Alcoa, Tenn. “Dear Friends in Christ ... We are frankly at a loss of words adequate to respond to such a senseless act,” the Rev. Ron Matthews stated in an April 17 e-mail. “On behalf of Bishop James E. Swanson Sr., please convey to Bishop [Charlene] Kammerer our most sincere offer of any and all services of Holston Conference ...”“Dear Ron, Bishop Swanson, and friends from Holston,” Bishop Kammerer replied on April 18. “Thank you so much for your care and offer of help. We are in shock, but responding in ministry to where our hurts are deepest. We will remember your offers of specific help as the weeks unfold and it becomes more clear of the needs best met.”
The Rev. Mike Ward is pastor at Wharf Hill-Elizabeth UMC in Abingdon District. He’s also a police chaplain who waited a few days to offer his help – “after the early responders have left and the reality is setting in.” On the Saturday after the shootings, Ward drove to Blacksburg. He stopped at the memorial in front of Norris Hall, where he offered to pray with a couple of students. He went to the campus police office, where he talked and prayed with several people – including an officer in her 20s who was on the scene of the shootings. She had never seen a gunshot wound before that day.
Auburn UMC is 20 minutes away from Tech, with numerous faculty, employees, and students in the pews. One is a retired professor who was in Norris Hall during the shootings. The Rev. Kathy Hale felt it best not to ask her parishioners for interviews. “They need to grieve,” she explained. “We need to pray for these individuals. Pray for the healing process to continue in the weeks and months ahead – and not just for one week out of our lives.”
Annette Spence is editor of The Call.