Threads of Hope

Surrounded by sprawling fields, amidst the backdrop of the Appalachian Mountains, lies the town of Blacksburg, Va. Virginia Tech’s nearly 30,000 students call Blacksburg home and make up some two-thirds of the town’s total population. And the people of Blacksburg wouldn’t have it any other way. The university and community have long been woven together in the patchwork of small town life.

“There isn’t a place where campus starts and town ends. This community is very interconnected,” said Steve Schmitt, the Young Life area director in Blacksburg. For more than 130 years the school and community have grown alongside each other. But since the tragic shootings on April 16, they’ve grieved together, and Young Life staff, leaders and kids have persevered together to find hope and healing.

Tragic for all
Reality has long since sunk in, but for many, it’s still difficult to imagine such a horrific event taking place in such a serene setting. “For a lot of us, it’s still hard to believe it happened here,” said Susanna Sylvester, a senior, who helps lead Young Life leader training at Tech. Young Life has been a strategic part of the spiritual landscape of Blacksburg for the past 16 years. Thirty-five leaders minister to kids at the five high schools in and around Blacksburg and outer-lying areas in Montgomery County. Young Life is also one of dozens of ministries that comprise the spiritual landscape on campus, and many victims’ stories connect students to one another. “Every story hits home for us,” Schmitt said. “Every story is a campus story — our committee, our churches, our clubs, our kids and our leaders — every single person knows someone who was killed or injured or knows someone who does.”

Although students on every high school campus in the Blacksburg area were affected, the shootings hit very close to home for students involved with Young Life at Auburn High School. Virginia Tech student Lindsey Miller is a leader at Auburn; her roommate, Leslie Sherman, was killed in Norris Hall. “Kids made the connection,” Schmitt said. “Young Life went from being a place where high schoolers had fun with their college friends to a place where they saw the grief and loss firsthand. Young Life wasn’t just a place to have fun anymore; it was a place where they could also share pain.”

Auburn High students quickly learned about Miller’s roommate after texting leaders throughout the day of the shootings. “Some kids were really shook up,” Miller said. “They knew Leslie, and they saw what I was going through and it added a different dimension to their experience. This showed them that, as Christians, we’re not above the pain and suffering; real life is hurtful.”

This is the first full year that the 400-plus students at Auburn have experienced Young Life. Club attendance has doubled over the past six months and, like most Young Life ministries, the growth has been attributed to the faithfulness of the leaders — being seen at the school and being involved in kids’ lives. “This is a small town,” Miller said. “Our leaders spend six hours a week with kids just [by visiting them] at lunch, and we get to know a lot of kids and they realize who we are.”

Reaching out to each other
As the tragedy unfolded in the early morning of April 16, Young Life leaders gathered and decided to do what they do best: Show up. As reports of the shootings at Virginia Tech began circulating, all schools in the area were closed and on emergency lock-down. Scott Cramer, a Young Life leader in Blacksburg, along with the rest of his Young Life team, immediately headed to the high school. “We got there and just prayed for the kids. Then, the administration gave us permission to come inside.” The presence of their Young Life leaders was the sign of stability that day.

“We’re always there,” Cramer said. “But we knew that day would make our lives different from then on. We just tried to comfort kids in any way we could.”

The day after the shootings, a Convocation service was held, followed by a candlelight vigil that night. Rachael Judy, who works at Virginia Tech and leads training for freshmen and sophomores, began calling leaders shortly after the first shooting.

She remembers Young Life leaders demonstrating faith that simply can’t be taught. “After Convocation, several students went down to pray at the center of the football field. Seeing them laying facedown, pouring their hearts out to God, showed that they’re not just Young Life leaders, but solid, committed men and women pursuing God.” As more and more students joined in, the scene on the 50-yard line illustrated faith in action.

Just as leaders had sought out kids on their campuses, kids came to be with their leaders at the candlelight vigil. “I ran into a lot of high school kids that night,” Cramer said. Some students were confused and looking for answers, others were there to find and comfort their leaders. “Kids were texting us to see if we were alive, and their parents were calling to make sure we were all right all day,” Cramer added. “That night, everybody was ministering to everybody.”

A mission responds
As hope flickered in the candlelight vigil on the Virginia Tech drill field, encouragement began pouring in. Less than one week after the shootings, more than 2,000 pieces of mail postmarked from around the country and e-mails sent from all around the world inundated the Young Life office. It took Schmitt nearly six weeks to read it all. Campaigner kids wrote to Campaigner kids, staff sent notes to let Schmitt know they were praying. But much of the mail was from leaders writing to leaders. “Knowing others were lifting us up faithfully helped us to respond better — to take all we were feeling and use those emotions to reach out, to cry, to embrace. The blessing, the sustaining comfort that gave us, is impossible to quantify,” Schmitt said. It’s that kind of encouragement — along with leaders’ commitment to kids — that has enriched the ministry in Blacksburg. Two weeks after the shootings, club resumed for Auburn High School, and the Gospel message kids had heard all semester seemed to be resonating strongly with many.

Relationships deepened as leaders and kids continued to wade through their grief together. “Kids really began to understand the whole idea that we don’t know what tomorrow holds,” said Crystie Beroth, a Young Life leader at Auburn. “They weren’t only responding to the club talks — they were responding to one another. God used that pain to show all of us how to live, how to treat one another, and high school kids are beginning to live that out.”

Hope continues
“As part of a deep and broad Christian family in the area, Young Life, along with other ministries, has impacted Blacksburg with the hope and love of Jesus Christ,” Schmitt said.

“This says nothing about us, but everything about Jesus Christ,” he said. “He’s the same yesterday, today and forever and we know that truth. Though there will never be recovery, there’s been a priceless discovery. People have found a new depth and appreciation for life, for family, for friends, for one another. Hope was never abandoned; Christ has invigorated it.”