April 19, 2007

At Virginia Tech, Trying to Explain the Unexplainable

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ometimes, the Rev. William King says, the answers to the tough questions just don't come. And when they do, they don't come easily, or often they come up short.

"There is an incredible temptation to explain, to domesticate, to tie up all the loose ends of something so horrible," said King, the Lutheran campus minister at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Va., since 1984. "Sometimes, one just has to be quiet."

And so it goes across the Virginia Tech campus, where police say 23-year-old Cho Seung-Hui fatally shot 32 people and wounded at least 15 others Monday (April 16) before turning the gun on himself.

As clergy and counselors descend on Virginia Tech to offer comfort and consolation, they say it's still too early to try to make sense of it all. There will be time enough for that.

Until then, they--like the Prophet Elijah--are listening for the still small voice of God. "We haven't gotten much beyond `We're here with you,'" said Teresa Volante, the school's Catholic campus minister. "The difficult questions haven't yet come."

2007 1511 page39 linkFor now, counselors say students are dealing with the "what if" questions: what if it had been my dorm where the shooting first broke out? What if I had been in an engineering class in Norris Hall where most of the victims died? What if I weren't one of the lucky ones?

The Rev. Mark Appleton, associate director of Virginia Tech's Baptist Collegiate Ministries, has already heard those questions. He doesn't have the answers, either.

"We've got everything from people who were supposed to be in that room and for some freak reason they weren't by some providence of God--and there's a lot of joy in that--but there's also guilt. ... We had a couple of students that were in the Norris building that could have easily been in there and ... didn't end up going to class or weren't in the building and so they were spared."

The "what if's" lead to the why's and the how's that accompany any type of disaster, natural or manmade: why would God allow this to occur? How could there be a God in the face of such unspeakable horror? Why did I get out alive? It's the type of question Rabbi Harold Kushner tried to address in his best-selling book, "When Bad Things Happen to Good People." The answers remain as elusive as ever.

"We don't want to give pat religious answers that feel hollow to kids. It's time to sit with them and their questions," said Ginger Taylor Evans, director of Christian education at Blacksburg Presbyterian Church, where her husband, Alexander Evans, is the pastor.

"As Christians, we have to be comfortable living with the questions and not pretending to have all the answers." Some are propelled forward by rituals that bridge life with death. Holocaust survivor Liviu Librescu was teaching his engineering class when he was killed Monday. Jewish groups rushed to have Librescu's body flown to Israel for burial in accordance with Jewish law.

"After this," said Yossel Kranz, a Chabad rabbi from Richmond, Va., speaking from the medical examiner's office on his cellphone, "we will certainly make ourselves available to the greater student body."

Perhaps the hardest struggle--and one that King will try to answer in his sermon on Sunday--is confronting the age-old  question of evil. America wrestled with that demon in Oklahoma City, at Columbine High School, at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

The evil that lingered in Blacksburg on Monday was "way bigger and more absurd than we've got language for," King said. Appleton, the Baptist minister, called it a "hideous" evil. With limited language even to describe it, the answers become harder still.

The campus waits in somber stillness. The answers, they say, may come in time. "So far, people have been pretty hunkered down in silent small little groups. It's been tough to have face-to-face contact with a lot of people," King said. "We sense that we're in the middle of the eye of a storm. Right now, it's almost deathly quiet."

Amy Green, Marcia Z. Nelson, Rachel Pomerance and Andrea Useem contributed to this story.                                                                                                                                                              ©2007 Religion News Services