Nearly 6 months after the shooting deaths of 27 students and 5 professors at Virginia Tech, people in that community are still learning to cope.
Ravi Zacharias, a much sought after speaker, author and current visiting professor at Oxford University, spoke on the campus during a 2-night event October 9 and 10 about "Finding Answers Amid Life's Greatest Losses."
The timing of this event falls at a crucial point in the process of grief. "We've heard from people who have done crisis training that oftentimes you don't see the height of grief until 6 months after the event," says Jeff Highfield, Campus Ministry director at Virginia Tech.
October 16 marked the 6-month anniversary of the tragedy.
However, what was meant to destroy has knit this community closer than ever before. Blacksburg, VA, is pulling together to stand united in one thing: hope.
On October 9, Ravi addressed about 2,500 faculty and students in Burruss Hall, Virginia Tech's signature building situated next to Norris Hall, site of the classroom shootings.
The healing process requires opportunities, like this event, for Virginia Tech to deal with things as a family. "This community needs to sit down and hear truth together, in light of what they have seen together," says Danny White, current Virginia Tech graduate student and former staff member with Athletes in Action. The event, Danny said, was "really for the community, a community with questions."
The event on the evening of October 10 in Cassell Coliseum, site of the nationally broadcasted memorial convocation last spring, was open to the public. Approximately 5,000 attended.
Over 25 local churches and ministries pulled together to coordinate this event. A rarity in today's individualistic culture, no one fought for top billing.
And although Ravi Zacharias is well-known around the world, the focus remained on the spirit of cooperation that continues since Ravi left.
"Ravi does a great job of being able to be full of truth but incredibly full of grace and kindness toward people who are struggling," says Jeff. "But I think the working together of the local body of Christ is even more powerful and more important than Ravi."
The Campus Ministry at Tech has already noticed an increase in responsiveness on campus in the wake of last April's shootings. Their weekly meetings are averaging 650 people, 75 students more than this time last year, and already this semester, 17 people have indicated decisions for Christ.
"God is working through the prayers of Christians all over the world for us," says Jeff, who officially took the reins as Campus Ministry director at Tech last January. "Our students are amazing. They are getting out on campus, meeting students, sharing their faith, inviting people to events."
Among the fallen were 3 students who were actively involved with the Campus Ministry.
Jeff wants this event to further equip Christian students to reach out to those around them. "I hope they are challenged by what Ravi said, to get into the Word and help answer some of those questions to their friends. Ultimately we want them to see the hope that is in the Gospel."
That message of hope has been sown and harvested for several generations at Virginia Tech. "Tech has always been a strong, fertile soil for student ministry," says Dave DeHuff, Virginia Tech alumnus and Cru staff member.
While Dave was a senior at Tech in the early '70's, a freshman named Sandy Young experienced a radical change in his life, eerily similar to what many expect to see happen after Ravi's visit. Sandy, now the pastor of one of the cooperating churches involved in this event, has seen his experience come full circle as he spoke on stage at the event.
"It's a privilege to come back to my alma mater and say, '30 years ago when I was disillusioned and devastated by events at that time, Christ changed my life.'"
The students are not the only ones wrestling with difficult questions. Faculty and staff members mourn not only the loss of the students in their classrooms, but also 5 of their colleagues.
"The main apologetic question that keeps intellectuals from coming to God is, 'How can a loving God allow evil and suffering in the world?'" says Dave, who serves as a regional representative for Faculty Commons, the Cru ministry to professors.
Formerly known as Christian Leadership Ministries, Faculty Commons brings Christianity to the table of discussion among participating professors and their peers. They integrate their faith with their academic work, speaking out about hot issues and current events. Dave has a 12-year history with professors at Tech.
Last spring's experience, however, presents a difficult challenge for Christian professors wanting to help their colleagues.
"It's a subject you don't want to just cover in an academic, scholarly, classroom type of way because when people are really hurting, they don't always need logic and pat answers," says Dave.
"Most Christians, when they are asked about the problem of evil and suffering, make one of two mistakes. They either have nothing intelligent to say at all or they give simplistic, pat answers that are very satisfying to them, but really don't help the person who is asking the question."
Dave is confident that Ravi has opened up a dialogue among Tech's teaching community because Ravi has dealt with his own issues of suffering. "When you want someone to speak into the darkness of a situation like this, you want someone who has wrestled with issues."
Faculty Commons participated in a special luncheon for the faculty on the day following Ravi's address to the Virginia Tech family. "A lot of times people enjoy getting in a safe environment where they can talk about things they can't talk about with anyone else," says Dave.
He said people remained after the luncheon, sitting around tables and talking about the issues raised. At each place setting, an invitation was left for future weekly discussions.
"We know that Ravi, by himself, is not the band-aid or the cure-all for the hurt," Danny says.
The common goal is bigger than Ravi as well as each church and ministry involved. "We want to see people who are struggling with this [tragedy] see the hope that is in the Gospel," says Jeff. "We want for people to be helped."
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