Apr 24, 2007

Virginia Tech convocation helps grieving process

by Erin Fitch, News Reporter
Thousands of Hokies descended en masse into Lane Field, the Virginia Tech football stadium. Clasping hands, embracing and praying, they proudly bejeweled the campus as they marched in wearing the traditional Virginia Tech colors of maroon and orange.

While a portion of the thousands perched in the bleachers, most students quietly stormed the athletic field instead, huddling together in the soft grass. But this was not a spring football game the Hokies were coming to pay homage to. Instead, the students gathered to mourn and grieve the horrific loss of life from the day before—the day when a lone gunman massacred 32 other students and wounded at least 30 more before finally taking his own life.

But the next day, April 17, was a new day. 

The convocation ceremony was held in the university’s basketball arena, Cassell Coliseum, but with a limited capacity of only 10,000 seats, thousands more from the student body, faculty and community opted to watch in solidarity from Lane Stadium. 

On the trek to the stadium from an overflowing makeshift parking lot, a Radford University woman held her chin up in determination to offer strength to the community.

“As a student and as a mother, I came here to support Virginia Tech,” she said through tears. 
On the field, students reunited with each other for the first time since the shooting.
“How are you?” one male student softly asked a female companion.
“Okay,” she said. “Still in a little bit of shock.”

“…Did you know anyone?” he finally asked.

“I knew Catie,” she said, her voice quivering. “I went to high school with her. We were in AP Chemistry. It’s… so sad.”

As the ceremony finally began, the crowd stared transfixed at the huge stadium scoreboard, yearning to hear words of comfort and empathy from the nation’s leaders.

Warm and appreciative applause immediately broke out with the first signs of President Bush and the First Lady. The screen then cut away to the flag-wielding Corps of Cadets, and the melodious hum of the student band rang out the Star Spangled Banner.

The first to attempt to address the great pain afflicting the Hokies was Zenobia Hikes, Vice President of Student Affairs.

“The world shares our sorrow and pays tribute with us,” she said.

Of those who lost their lives, Hikes added, “They can never be replaced, neither in our hallways or in our hearts. We have lost not just (them), but the sense of peace that comes with learning.”
She then introduced the president of the university, Charles Steger. At the mere mention of his name, applause resounded throughout both the arena and stadium until all attendees were on their feet. The force of the emotion behind it overwhelmed and nearly overtook Steger.

The head of the administration had been a prime target of sharp criticism from media talking heads and parents since the shootings occurred.

But while many reporters questioned how the administration could have allowed classes to continue after the first deadly shooting, students from the Tech community stood to pay tribute to Steger’s leadership nonetheless.  

“I don’t see what more they could have done,” said one fifth-year Corps of Cadets member.
As the ceremony continued, uplifting words from Virginia Governor Tim Kaine struck chords of compassion. The former missionary invoked the Bible’s most familiar stories of pain and suffering with the victory that accompanied them.

Recounting the age-old story of Job, Kaine reassured the community it was okay to be angry, and with the haunting illustration of Christ’s suffering on Calvary, assured them once again that it was okay to feel despair.

“My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” Kaine quoted.

Taking the stage, President Bush reminded the crowd of the enormous healing and power of prayer. “People who have never met you are praying for you ,” he said.

The picture reminded the crowds what the tapestry of America is—different peoples, different beliefs working alongside each other to create a great nation.

“Today we are all Hokies,” was the phrase ringing out from around the state.

But in the wake of such horror and unfathomable grief, Americans from all regions, denominations and party lines cast aside disparities to give comfort to the hurting Blacksburg community.
For members of the New Life Christian Fellowship staff, speaking out is part of the daunting healing process they’re preparing to help get underway.

 “It’s surreal,” said Jeanette Staats, a doctoral student and staff member of the ministry. “I’ve been here for 10 years— I’ve never seen anything like this.”

Engineering graduate student Deirdre Hunter had trouble even finding the words to express her shock. “I can’t believe…” she said. “I can’t believe…”

During the attacks, Hunter was next door to Norris Hall in Building 133 for a meeting. When the sound of the shooter’s bullets began piercing the tranquil Monday morning hour, Hunter said everyone on her floor was ushered into the hallway for safety.

“All the students were hunkered down, staying away from the windows.” There in that hallway, Hunter and her classmates waited until 1 p.m. for SWAT teams to call them out. Hunter later found out from her pastor that a fellow member of the Bible study she attended had been one of the massacred. His name was Jarrett Lane.

Lane, a 22 year-old civil engineering major, was from Narrows, Va. and valedictorian of his high school class.

His brother-in-law later told the Washington Post that he was “fun-loving,” “full of spirit” and was an avid fan of Christian alternative music.

Despite the team’s immense grief, they reiterated this is not a time for anger.

“Everyone I’ve talked to is okay with how it was handled,” Hunter said, regarding the media onslaught of criticism toward the administration for failing to warn students in time and close campus after the first shooting.

“Now is not the time for pointing fingers,” she said.

Even regarding the shooter and his family, Hunter called for forgiveness.

“I saw a lot of Facebook groups wanting to act out in anger, but his parents are probably hurting even more,” she said.

 Terri Dewey, also of New Life Christian Fellowship, echoed the need for forgiveness and comfort along with Hunter, and even challenged those wanting to reach out to the Virginia Tech community with ways they could help.

“With classes cancelled for the rest of the week, a lot of community residents and upperclassmen have opened their homes to the students who live on campus, especially those from West A.J.,” said Dewey, referring to West Ambler Johnston Hall, the dormitory where the killings began.
 “Also, think of creative ways for people to tell the students here they care,” she said.

 Some of these can be as  simple as care packages for the residents, filled with study snacks for up-coming exams, spirited colors of the maroon and orange, and cards of encouragement and sympathy.

Just like on 9/11, Dewey encouraged others to tell the students where they were in the country when they heard about the massacre and to share the burden of anguish.
Hunter left one last word of advice.

“Don’t forget,” she said. “There’s a big tendency to forget.”
“We don’t know what God’s going to do… but we know He’s in control.”

Contact Erin Fitch at eefitch@liberty.edu.
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