Sometimes, answers to the tough questions just don't come, campus ministers at Virginia Tech insist. When they do, they don't come easily. And they often come up short.
As ministers and counselors descended on Virginia Tech to offer comfort and consolation in the tragedy's immediate aftermath, they said it was still too early to try to make sense of it all. There will be time enough for that.
Until then, they—like the Old Testament Prophet Elijah—were listening for the still small voice of God.
“There is an incredible temptation to explain, to domesticate, to tie up all the loose ends of something so horrible,” said William King, the Lutheran campus minister at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, since 1984. “Sometimes, one just has to be quiet.”
And so it went across the Virginia Tech campus, where 23-year-old Cho Seung-Hui fatally shot 32 people and wounded at least 15 others before turning the gun on himself.
“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.”
For the short term, counselors said students were 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?
Mark Appleton, associate director of Virginia Tech's Baptist Collegiate Ministries, heard those questions. He didn't have easy 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,” Appleton said.
“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” questions lead to the “why” and “how” questions 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?
“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.”
Perhaps the hardest struggle is confronting the age-old question of evil, campus ministers agreed. 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 was “way bigger and more absurd than we've got language for,” King said.
Appleton called it a “hideous” evil.
With limited language even to describe it, the answers become harder still.
In the days immediately following the shooting, the campus waited in somber stillness. The answers, campus ministers said, 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.”
Reporting by Amy Green, Marcia Nelson, Rachel Pomer-ance and Andrea Useem.