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Worship in Terrible Times

A Community's Response to Virginia Tech

On April 17, 2007, a gunman killed 32 people at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Virginia, which was the deadliest school shooting in United States history. This article tells how Blacksburg churches, who had been working together to make ecumenical connections with the help of a Worship Renewal Grant, were able to respond to the tragedy as a community.

I called my pastor, Gary Schroeder, early on a Saturday morning before leaving for my son’s soccer game. “Sorry to bother you at home,” I said, “but I have some good news. We got the grant!”

“That’s not good news, that’s great news!” he answered. Neither of us had a clue at that point just what that news was going to mean in our lives and in the congregations of several Blacksburg churches over the next year and a half.

The grant I was so excited to receive was a worship renewal grant from the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. After reading an article in The Lutheran magazine about a congregation that had benefited from a worship renewal grant, I had asked Gary if he thought we should give it a shot. Our third service was faltering. It had begun as an outreach to the unchurched in our community, but after five years of changing the day, changing the format, and making many other attempts to appeal to those outside our church walls, it wasn’t drawing the people we had hoped to reach.

Maybe a worship renewal grant would help us find some answers—or at least guide our next steps. We would find out later how very true that was.

Widening the Circle

As we discussed applying for the grant, Gary and I talked about how the five other churches that we worship with during the Lenten season were undergoing similar struggles. Perhaps they would like to join forces for this grant? Gary checked with the other pastors, and, as the worship leader of the third service, I got to work on the grant.

Our proposal was that each of our six congregations—Baptist, Episcopal, Presbyterian, Methodist, Lutheran, and Catholic—would develop a worship renewal project that would not only focus on our individual congregations but also allow us to develop an ecumenical project in addition to our joint Lenten services. We would study worship renewal with a worship consultant in a fall retreat, work on our individual projects, come back together for a spring workshop, and then present our findings at a workshop for other churches.

We got the grant, our third service ended, and I became the director of an ecumenical worship renewal project. At our first meeting of the Renewing Together Team (RTT) and, subsequently, at the Grants Colloquium at Calvin College in June, it became apparent that we were in for a huge undertaking. Our broad goals had left us open to many different projects; the lack of clear focus was both exciting and daunting.

Finding Our Footing

The next six months brought about many changes, both in the way that the grant unfolded and in our working group. Our first joint meeting in November 2006 was as much about learning about each other and our denominational similarities and differences as it was about planning the workshop. “Reaching a goal/vision statement with an ecumenical group was challenging,” says Leigh Ann Taylor, Minister of Music at Blacksburg Methodist Church.

Then, for many reasons, the Catholic priest decided that their church could no longer participate. This unhappy parting caused hurt, anger, and sadness in all of us. We were afraid that instead of building bridges between the congregations, we were tearing down the fragile pieces that had already been carefully established.

That difficult time was a turning point for our group. We let down our barriers and let the hurt and frustration bring us to open, honest, real conversation.

In November we had a successful conference with Constance Cherry as our consultant; on March 17 we came together again with Dr. Cherry to talk about our individual projects as well as our ecumenical goals. By that time, we were, unfortunately, down another church. The Episcopalians were concentrating their energies on the search for a new rector, and without consistent leadership they found it too difficult to participate in the ecumenical group.

However, the four congregations who were left were eager to create some ecumenical ties between their congregations. Out of these discussions came several ideas for projects. A joint worship service was proposed, as well as a Lenten “stations of the cross” walk through Blacksburg, with a focus on social justice.

As we worked together, we noticed a new attitude developing. We discovered we were no longer “competing”; all of us were doing our best to offer authentic, passion-filled, and inspired worship. We realized that promoting each other’s programs and offerings benefitted us all in the end. We decided to advertise our programs in each other’s bulletins and newsletters and to open our doors to each other.

Lives Changed Forever

Then, almost exactly a month from that March gathering, all our lives were changed forever. On April 16, our community and our congregations were turned upside down by the shooting at Virginia Tech.

Although the news media isolated the campus from the community, in reality the two are one. No one in our congregations was left unscathed. Our members are closely associated with Tech—among them are many Virginia Tech alumni, parents, faculty, staff, students, and avid sports fans.

Although we had done much work on our project before the tragedy, the project, like the rest of our lives, was affected and shaped by that day. In the face of so much death, working for worship renewal seemed trivial at first. But we quickly realized that what we had done together gave us strength and a sense of community that sustained us through some very difficult times, in worship and beyond.

At a meeting shortly after the tragedy, Tommy McDearis, pastor of Blacksburg Baptist, shared his personal grief with us: “I have a mother whose daughter was killed. She didn’t just die. She was murdered. And I don’t know how to fix that.”

Being together at that meeting was an important time for all of us. “Shared loss helped us put differences aside. Shared work brought us closer and helped us deal with grief. Sometimes we just need to be together as Christians, to know what it feels like to be the body of Christ and to be strengthened,” says Taylor.

Susan Verbrugge, associate minister at Blacksburg Presbyterian Church, adds, “I learned how important it is to be together for worship in horrible times. The worship at that meeting will remain in my heart as one of the most powerful services I have been a part of. We spoke so honestly about where we were and what we were feeling. It truly was the living out of a lament psalm. Beauty in the midst of hell.”

The joint worship service that had been proposed developed into a service for the whole community. Our service of “Celebrating, Healing, and Serving,” took place on November 4 in Cassell Coliseum on the Virginia Tech campus. The location was the same as the convocation that took place the day after the shooting—a year and a day from our first joint workshop.

Members of all six of the original churches in the grant, as well as other congregations from the community, participated. Tony Campolo was the featured speaker, and we were joined by a team of staff and students from Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan. It was a wonderful example of Christian unity in the face of difficult circumstances.

Our Work Is Just Beginning

Over the past year and a half we have grown and changed and stretched. We’ve resisted that change and embraced that change. We’ve dealt with hard relationship-building and then reaped the rewards of that tenfold. We have laughed with each other, challenged each other, prayed with and for each other. We’ve learned that what you think your project is about may not be what it actually turns out to be in the end.

When I wrote the grant proposal, and when we started, we were all focused on our individual church projects; the ecumenical part of the grant was on the sidelines. It turned out to be very much the opposite. The major outcome of this project has been the ecumenical relationships that have developed and the things that we’ve accomplished together.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying that there hasn’t been worship renewal in each congregation. In fact, many wonderful things have come from the churches’ individual projects. But our work is just beginning.

One of the things that happened in each of our churches because of the grant is that we were given permission to take time to focus on worship. So many other things capture our time and energy that we often push worship planning and discussion to the background. “The grant allowed, inspired, and encouraged us to think seriously about worship,” says Alex Evans, pastor of the Presbyterian church. Gary Schroeder, pastor of Luther Memorial, agrees. “I have found that as a result of the grant, worship tends to be a deeper, more meaningful experience on a more regular basis.”

So what’s next? At this point, there are as many questions as there are answers. Isn’t that what meaningful renewal is meant to do? We must challenge what we believe and hold true—rarely a cut-and-dried process. Each step raises more questions, challenges, and possible directions. With something as vital as worship, we want to encourage this process on an ongoing basis.

The overwhelming consensus of the group was that we had come too far in the process of ecumenical collaboration to discontinue it. “It would be so easy to slip back into our own congregations and shut our doors again,” said one member. “But we’ve learned that it is too important and powerful for us to be together and work together. We need each other.”

We are hoping to create a model for other communities by creating a position of Ecumenical Director for the community. Our conversations are just beginning to fully explore what this could mean.

It became apparent to us that what communities need most in order to face tragedy is to develop solid relationships. Since we never know where or when such tragedies will occur, we can’t predict which communities will need these bonds. Perhaps by providing a model of relationship-building and a spirit of cooperation, we can support and encourage other church communities to foster ecumenical relationships that will one day sustain and support them as ours did and continues to do.