It’s been a year. It feels so far away, yet it could have been yesterday. The day that my quiet little town of Blacksburg became the center of the world.
From the first I heard – a phone call from my sister saying that something had gone terribly wrong in her dorm – blood everywhere, it seemed unreal. Nothing in the news yet. The suspense was unsettling. Surely something that had my sister so upset would be at least mentioned in the news. Finally, an email. “A shooting incident occurred at West Amber Johnston earlier this morning. Police are on the scene and are investigating.” I never knew so many words could say so little. Perfectly written PR mumbo jumbo. Still nothing in the news.
I’m still not sure what to think when another email arrives. The composure of the first email long gone. The subject was “PLease stay put” with a brief panick-stricken message: “A gunman is loose on campus. Stay in buildings until further notice. Stay away from all windows”. This is not just a shooting incident. God, what is going on?
The day brings back memories of September 11, 2001. A day spent in shock. The pentagon, less than nine miles from where I sat in high school, was the victim of terrorism. I had studied terror, but it was something that happened overseas. This was America after all. In much the same way, I sat in my black office chair staring at the computer screen. Continually pressing the refresh button to see what was going on. Reading news coverage from hundreds of miles away about events going on just blocks from where I was sitting. It seemed the number of the dead just kept rising. First it was one, then four, soon 14, finally rising to 32. The worst massacre in the history of the nation was unfolding in the kind of town you came to in order to escape senseless killings.
As I joined others to reflect that evening, emotions ran raw. There was a lot of crying, even more hugging, and certainly a lot of praying. Still, the whole thing felt artificial, like a movie. Was this really happening? My connections to those who were confirmed dead were limited – just friends of friends. Which kept me somewhat insulated from the events. Don’t get me wrong: I was very glad that my friends were safe. But things still felt unreal. I was able to help support those who were hurting, but I hadn’t grieved for me yet.
A couple days after the massacre – I don’t remember exactly when – everything came together for me. I was looking at more news, watching campuses from across the nation overflow with Hokie spirit. The only way you can understand Hokie spirit is if you spend some time in Blacksburg. It’s something that goes beyond sports and school loyalty. Something I’ve never felt anywhere else, and I’ve been on a lot of college campuses. It was amazing to see the whole country get caught up in a glimpse of this spirit. But the one thing that did it was when I saw a picture that would come to mean more to me than any others over the coming months.
The picture was simple. Not something that you’d want on your living room wall. A picture of a storied bridge two hours up the road. The Beta Bridge in Charlottesville, home of The University of Virginia. One place where Hokies usually aren’t welcome, even though that’s more trash talk than truth. When I saw this picture, I lost it. I cried all those tears that the previous few days had stored up in me. If Hokie spirit can touch UVA, truly anything is possible. I can’t even explain exactly why this picture gets to me, but I still tear up today when I see it.
As I grieved and continued to do my best to meet people where they were at, things started to change. I have never felt such a palpable spiritual change in my life. We had seen evil. On that day, there was no denying that evil exists in the world. An evil so dark that we can’t explain it. But what we saw after that is that there is a God who has overcome evil who is in the world. As people started to return to the new normal, people came together. People who had wanted nothing to do with God were suddenly seeing God in the midst of tragedy. The people of God came together and prayed. And on those days God poured out his blessings on us because we simply asked.
Less than two weeks later, many groups from across campus came together to declare that we truly are all here because we’re all needed parts of the body of Christ. A powerful night when many people were finally able to experience true worship again. I will never forget standing on the side of that hill in the heart of downtown Blacksburg where we sang these always powerful words that will never be the same to me again.
Savior he can move the mountains
My God is mighty to save
He is mighty to save
Forever, author of salvation
He died and conquered the grave
Jesus conquered the grave
Those words were challenging at first to sing on that crisp spring evening. And sometimes they still are. I teared up every time I heard this song even during the summer.
As I reflect on the massacre a year later, I remind myself that evil is very real in this world, but I know a God who has conquered evil and the grave for eternity.