|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
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
"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
“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.
"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
Candles are lit during a Feb. 15 prayer vigil at Sycamore (Ill.) United Methodist Church.
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
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.
While most Northern Illinois students had left campus by the morning
after the shooting, local church staff provided pastoral care to those
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
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 email@example.com.
Shooting victim was living out her call, family says
Gunman's rampage baffles friends
Gunman opens fire in lecture hall
Managing your distress in the aftermath of shooting
Commentary: Reflections on the Virginia Tech tragedy
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