[Episcopal News Service] The University of Virginia Episcopal Campus Ministry in Charlottesville comforts shocked and grieving students after three of their classmates were killed and two injured in a shooting Sunday night, November 13.
St. Paul’s Memorial Church and the adjacent Canterbury House campus ministry building are about a five-minute walk from the parking lot where the shooting happened. The students were shot on a bus returning from a field trip to see a play, the university said. another student was arrested and charged with murder on the morning of November 14.
“We’re in the thick of it here,” Reverend Mark Wastler, chaplain at The University Fellowship, told Episcopal News Service. “It was an execution.”
The students were locked up for around 12 hours while police searched for the suspect.
“As one told me, ‘We spent the last 12 hours not knowing whether we were going to be killed or not,'” Wastler said.
Once the lockdown ended, Wastler and church staff opened the church and put up signs saying it was open for prayer, with several priests on duty welcoming people and chatting with them. Wastler was planning an evening service on Nov. 14 with other church leaders that would be open to the entire community.
“We’re going to have student food and time to talk and process and be together,” he said.
In addition to the shooting’s spatial proximity to the campus ministry, the timing was also “just too close,” Wastler told ENS. The campus ministry holds a Sunday evening dinner and service, and people would leave around 9 p.m. The shooting happened around 10:30 p.m.
The shooting adds another psychological toll on students who are already struggling with mental health issues that have reached crisis levels, according to the American Psychological Association.
“This is a group of students who have been through a pandemic, and life is already fragile and uncertain,” Wastler told ENS. “I hear the word ‘vulnerability’ over and over again. We feel extremely vulnerable right now.
Journalists have noted that this generation of students is the first to grow up with active shooting drills as a common occurrence in schools, Wastler said, but that shouldn’t indicate any degree of normalcy.
“Familiarity doesn’t create immunity,” he said. “There is a darkness that settles in our minds.”
The campus community is rallying in response to the shooting, Wastler said, but people far beyond campus are also offering support.
“We joined a group that I never wanted to be part of today, and it was other schools that went through something like this,” he said.
Other Episcopal chaplains and priests who have been victims of shootings in their communities have reached out to offer support and resources, as has the Episcopal Church’s Faith Formation Department.
“In all of these tragedies, we all struggle with, ‘Where do we go from here?’ And the only answer is to be a peacemaker in your life,” Wastler said. “That’s the only answer to a tragedy like this.”
– Egan Millard is associate editor and reporter for Episcopal News Service. He can be contacted at [email protected]