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Church offers 'ministry of presence' to shaken campus

Students join a prayer vigil at Sycamore (Ill.) United Methodist Church for victims of the Feb. 14 shooting at Northern Illinois University. UMNS photos by Susan Dal Porto.

By Susan Dal Porto*
Feb. 18, 2008 | DeKALB, Ill. (UMNS)

On the Sunday before Valentine’s Day, students from the Wesley Foundation at Northern Illinois University prepared a pancake breakfast at the First United Methodist Church of DeKalb, just a few blocks from campus, to raise money for a mission trip to Puerto Rico in May.

The mood was festive and fun. "Everything was great," said Nikki Walters, 20, president of the school's Wesley Foundation.

On Feb. 14, all had changed for the students, church and school when graduate student Steven Kazmierczak, 27, opened fire in a lecture hall on campus, killing five people and injuring 17 others before killing himself.

While none of the Wesley students was among the dead or injured, the deadly shooting spree––the second in less than a year on a U.S. college campus––left the nation unnerved about school safety and filled with questions about the minds of the killers.

The United Methodist Church responded quickly to the latest shooting, providing counseling and assistance to families and students, holding prayer vigils for the university community, and opening church doors to offer support and hospitality to those shaken by the events.

'God cried the first tears'

Bishop Hee-Soo Jung of the Northern Illinois Annual (regional) Conference expressed the grief of the entire United Methodist denomination.

"As the church prays for victims and their families and friends and a troubled young man who turned to violence, we seek healing and comfort for all who are touched by this tragedy," Jung said in a statement. "We acknowledge a need for communities of faith to be a voice of healing and hope, of Christ’s peace and reconciliation for a world that desperately needs peace."

“As the church prays for victims and their families and friends and a troubled young man who turned to violence, we seek healing and comfort for all who are touched by this tragedy.”–Bishop Hee-Soo Jung

Listing the names of the students killed, the church's local district superintendent said God's truth and kingdom abide, especially amid tragedy. "Before the families of NIU students Daniel, Catalina, Ryanne, Julianna (and) Gayle ever got word that their sons and daughters died in that campus carnage at DeKalb, God cried the first tears," said the Rev. Larry Hilkemann.

Among the dead was sophomore Ryanne Mace, 19, the granddaughter of two retired United Methodist clergy members in the Illinois Great Rivers Conference, the Rev. Eugene Mace and the Rev. Miley Palmer.

Bishop Sharon Brown Christopher, who leads the Illinois Great Rivers Conference, called the church to engage in "serious reflection about how we, the church, might contribute to the ending of the anger, rage, and violence in our society that has contributed not only to Ryanne's death but the deaths of many not only on the NIU campus but in our schools throughout our country."  

The church responds

After ensuring that all Wesley Foundation students were safe Feb. 14, the Rev. Efrain Avila and other campus ministry staff joined professional counselors to talk to students at university residence halls. His wife, Laura Avila, is also a clinical psychologist and was part of the rapid deployment counseling team.

Rev. Avila, who is bilingual, later was dispatched to Kishwaukee Hospital to provide translation services and minister to the Hispanic-speaking family of shooting victim Catalina "Cati" Garcia, 20.

The Rev. Laura Crites, associate pastor from DeKalb First United Methodist Church, offered support and help at the same local hospital. The Rev. Jane Easley, senior pastor at the DeKalb church, fielded phone calls and assisted visitors with updates and information.

At noon on Feb. 15, a prayer vigil was held at the DeKalb church.

Candles are lit during a Feb. 15 prayer vigil at Sycamore (Ill.) United Methodist Church.


"We are gathered to grieve over bodies, injured people, and souls that are affected so deeply," Easley said. "We claim the resources of our faith. Today we need to be an Easter people, worshipping our resurrected God."

Avila spoke to those in attendance about his night at the hospital with the Garcia family as they awaited news of their daughter. "Yes, students were murdered in cold blood," he said, "and right now we are all in shock. But this doesn’t end here. There is a lot of pain going on, and it is going to be hard when school opens again."

On the evening of Feb. 15, another prayer vigil was held at Sycamore United Methodist Church, which is about six miles from campus and home to many students and university staff. Outside, the church's electronic sign proclaimed "NIU, we are praying for you." Inside, worshippers gathered, many in the red and black colors of the university.

The Rev. Bill Landis, senior pastor, wore a school athletic shirt and described how he called his son, Jake, a student at Northern Illinois, on the afternoon of the shooting. Landis' son was walking across campus near Cole Hall, where the shooting took place, as he spoke on his cell phone, and the elder Landis was shaken by the sound of sirens in the background.

The Wesley group will hold another prayer vigil for the community at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 19, at the DeKalb church. Tuesday evening is the United Methodist student group's regular weekly meeting night. 

Seeking healing

While most Northern Illinois students had left campus by the morning after the shooting, local church staff provided pastoral care to those who remained.

Avila expressed thanks for the messages of support and prayer coming from across the church. "While we're all caught up in 'what's next,' please remember the injured in your prayers," said Avila. "Some are still critical."

Classes and athletic activities have been suspended through Feb. 24. Before students return Feb. 25, a campus-wide memorial service is planned. Faculty and staff are scheduled to return to campus Feb. 19 to begin training on ways to help the campus return to an environment of learning and normalcy.

Avila said the school plans to follow the "Virginia Tech model" of healing and helping used after that school's on-campus shooting last April, with a licensed mental health professional and a clergyperson in every classroom for every class. "We will need lots of qualified people to make this work," he said. For more information about how to help, click here.

University President John Peters acknowledged the spiritual, emotional and physical toll on the Northern Illinois community, saying the shooting left behind "serious wounds of body and spirit." He cited a Feb. 15 prayer vigil on campus, attended by more than 2,000 people. "I personally took great comfort in the outpouring of concern for victims and love for each other that was expressed at that event, and believe we must carry those sentiments forward in our hearts in the days and weeks ahead," he said.

For Nikki Walters, a sophomore, the reminders will include an empty chair at a Bible study she attended each Thursday night with Gayle Dubowski, 20, one of the students killed. "She was so sweet, and now she won’t be there with us," said Walters.

*Dal Porto is director of communications for The United Methodist Church’s Northern Illinois Annual Conference.

News media contact: Marta Aldrich, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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Northern Illinois University

NIU Wesley Foundation

Wesley Foundation pastor's message on ways to help

First United Methodist Church of DeKalb

Northern Illinois Conference

Statement from Bishop Hee-Soo Jung

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