This past week was difficult for our community. I live in Chatham, Virginia, about 2-hours from Blacksburg and Virginia Tech, so we were obviously affected by that tragedy. But, on the Saturday before the VT tragedy, our town doctor died suddenly and unexpectedly. Dr. Thompson was a member of our church, as was his physician father before him, and his pharmacist grandfather. Monday the Virginia Tech shootings occured, and on Tuesday we had the funeral for Dr. Thompson at our church. It was a difficult week for our community.
Here are some observations from a ministry standpoint about helping a community through its grieving process:
1. We pull together in times of grief. Our members, and our whole town, pulled together to minister to Dr. Thompson’s family. Our town pulled together during the VT tragedy, and gathered for a community memorial service on Wednesday night.
2. We want to do something in our grief. Why do we take food and send flowers during a time of grief? Because it is our way of doing something with our grief. It is our way of saying to the family, “We’re with you.” It is our way of saying to the community, “We care.” One lady in our church, Karen Hearn, made over 600 VT ribbons and gave them out in the community and at our church on Sunday. In our helplessness, doing something helps ease the pain.
3. We want to identify with the grieving. The folks in our town had a lot of stories about Dr. Thompson, and many said, “He was my doctor.” On Wednesday night, I asked the congregation gathered at our community memorial service, “How many of you know a student, faculty member, or an alumnus of Virginia Tech?” The show of hands was overwhelming as the congregation identified with the VT community.
4. We want some assurance that we will get through this. As pastors, we cannot give easy, glib answers to the questions people have during times of grief, but we can assure them that God is with us in our grief, and that we will move through this time of grief. Dr. Nikki Giovanni, professor at Virginia Tech, shared her poem of acknowledgement and hope at the VT memorial service on Tuesday after the shootings. Dr. Giovanni walked the fine line of acknowledging grief while holding up hope, and did it very well.
5. We need anchors in the midst of our grief. On Wednesday night, the entire community of Chatham shared communion. As we gathered at the Table, we celebrated both the death of Christ in his broken body and shed blood, and the victory of Christ in his resurrection. Communion became a memorial of hope for our community that night. On Sunday at our church, we took names of the victims so we could pray for their families. Prayer is an anchor that also gives hope.
6. We do not want our grief used as a pretext for other agendas. Community grief provides an opportunity to share the love and hope of Christ with others. The focus is on our grief and our hope, not on other agendas. Commentators who ventured into gun control issues quickly found out last week that it was too soon, and too insensitive to move quickly from grief to a political agenda.
7. We want others to acknowledge our loss. Look at the Virginia Tech website. As the scope of the tragedy became known, VT posted a frontpage to their site reflecting the sorrow and sadness of the tragedy. Amazingly, one blogger noted that only one church in Blacksburg had changed their church sites to acknowledge the shootings. We want others to show respect for our loss and churches should lead the way in this expression of sorrow.
Community crises can provide pastors and churches with an opportunity to offer the hope and healing of Christ in the midst of grief. We do not have to provide easy answers, but we can provide the presence of Christ who understands our suffering and sorrow.