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Baptist Pastor Reflects on One-Year Anniversary of Virginia Tech Shootings

Virginia Tech cancelled classes Wednesday for a Day of Remembrance to honor 32 students and faculty killed a year ago in the deadliest school shooting in U.S. history.The 32 flags representing each victim that flew outside Blacksburg Baptist Church in the days following the April 16 tragedy were back on display this week. After the flags are taken down April 20, they will be given to victims’ families.

Blacksburg Baptist Church, which is affiliated with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, opened its sanctuary during the day Wednesday, with counselors on hand for the somber anniversary. The congregation scheduled a 6:15 p.m. worship service to mark the event. Afterward, worshippers walked as a group to a candlelight vigil on the campus Drillfield similar to the vigil held the night after the shootings.

Tommy McDearis, senior pastor of Blacksburg Baptist Church since 1997, said memories remain fresh at the congregation located across the street from the Virginia Tech campus.

“We’re doing as well as you can do,” McDearis told TV station WDBJ7.

“It’s kind of a mixed bag, like the entire town is,” McDearis said in an 11-minute interview posted on the station’s Web site. “Some people are still struggling more than others. Some people have moved on and it’s a bad memory that they deal with. And then you have family members and so forth that dealt with it very directly, and they’re still trying to heal from the losses they’ve gone through. So we’re dealing with about every emotion you can imagine in our congregation.”

McDearis, a police chaplain, said he was first called last April 16 by one of the directors of the rescue squad about a shooting in Norris Hall. Within seconds of hanging up the phone a police lieutenant called with news the shooting was bad and he needed to get to the hospital as soon as possible.

McDearis was there when the first students from Norris Hall started to arrive at the hospital. He stayed with wounded students and met with their friends until about noon, when he returned to campus to minister to police officers and rescue squad members as they were just getting ready to remove the dead. That afternoon he started setting up operations to meet with victims’ families.

“That was in many ways the hardest part, trying to tell those parents and spouses that their loved ones were not going to be coming back home,” he recalled. “Nothing quite gets you ready for that.”

McDearis said the full magnitude of the day didn’t hit until well after midnight, when he went home and tried to get a few hours of sleep. “It was a terrible moment in the dark that morning as I started thinking about what we had dealt with,” McDearis said, “and that it wasn’t going to go away, that it was going to be like this for a long time to come.”

That Sunday McDearis preached a sermon based on a verse that came to his mind April 16 and stayed with him all week long–Romans 8:28–in all things God works for good for those that love him.

“I did not believe and do not believe to this day that God willed for any of this to happen, but I believe God was there to work with us and to try to bring as much good out of it as he could,” McDearis said.

McDearis said he believes everyone has tried to bring something positive out of the tragedy,

“It’s changed all of us in some ways, but it’s been very positive to watch and see how people have worked in the last year, on all levels, trying to make this town a better place and university a better place,” he said.

“I think in many ways people have been more patient with each other in the last year, and we certainly have not forgotten–at least in our own congregation it’s routine for people to come to me and say, ‘How is the Cloyd family doing? How are the Hammarens doing? How are others doing that you’ve dealt with? What can we do to help? Is there anything?’ I mean those were routine questions, and there have been very few weeks that someone has not come and asked those questions.”

“There’s been an ongoing sense of the brokenness that happened that day, and no one has wanted to walk by that without saying, ‘How can we make a difference and what can we be doing to help those individuals?'” McDearis said. “That’s been very uplifting to me, to watch that and to see that happen. I wouldn’t have had this kind of an event occur to bring that about for anything in the world, but it’s certainly been uplifting in our church and in our community to see that people of faith would step up and make sure that they were trying to touch the lives of those around them in the most positive way they possibly could. That’s been a positive thing.”

Some marked the anniversary of the massacre with prayer and others with protest. More than 70 cities and town across America scheduled events to remember the shootings and call on Congress to strengthen the Brady background check system by closing the gun-show loophole.

Most of the April 16 activities were local “lie-ins,” where participants lay down in groups of 32 to recall the 32 innocent victims murdered at Virginia Tech and symbolize the 100,000 people who are killed or injured every year in America with firearms.

Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.

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