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Faith-based media spots address campus shootings

A gentle waterfall provides the backdrop for United Methodist-produced television spots airing in southwestern Virginia following the Virginia Tech shootings. UMNS photo illustrations courtesy of United Methodist Communications Igniting Ministry.

A UMNS Report
By Marta W. Aldrich*
April 24, 2007

A full-page ad ran in The Roanoke Times on the Sunday following the April 16 shootings.

The region surrounding Virginia Tech cis receiving a faith-based message of comfort and hope from the people of The United Methodist Church through television and radio spots and newspaper ads addressing the college  campus massacre.

Beginning this week and running for one week, more than 300 television spots and radio tags are reminding listeners and viewers in southwestern Virginia that The United Methodist Church in Virginia is praying with them.

"In this time of local and national tragedy," says the TV narrator, "we are all filled with questions. Why did this happen? What do we say to our children? How will we heal?

"We may never find answers, but we can comfort one another as we seek peace and understanding."

The spots invite people to visit the Roanoke District Web site for a listing of practical suggestions about how to talk with children about the shooting to help them feel safe in a sometimes violent world. The site also helps visitors search for a local United Methodist church.

"We wanted to make sure the church is putting out its own response and that it is clear we have an answer to what ails the world," said the Rev. Stephen Hundley, district superintendent in Roanoke, who helped organize the media response and also provided narration.

"There are desperate people in the world who are alone and lost. I believe the answer is that we all need to seek the transformation that comes from living a life of faith in Jesus Christ."

The message emphasizes children.

"We're concerned that we might get so focused on what this means to our young adult population that our children and youth -- the groups who will follow them in college -- are sometimes being left out of the conversation," Hundley said.

"They're seeing their parents cry, and they're seeing them upset. They know something has happened, and we want to be a resource agent for useful information in behalf of the church."

The message also encourages seekers to visit United Methodist churches or other congregations in search of spiritual understanding and hope.

"People are searching for comfort and looking for answers in a time like this and often come to church to find those answers, even when they normally don't attend," said Linda Rhodes, director of communications for the Virginia Annual (regional) Conference. "We think it's important to help people find a local church quickly."

Reaching a larger audience

The media response has included a full-page ad that ran Sunday, April 22, in The Roanoke Times, proclaiming that "fear is not the only force at work in the world today" and reminding readers that the church is praying with them.

"In today's media environment, if the church is able to turn on a dime to be a presence in the public conversation, the church can offer a word of hope."
– The Rev. Larry Hollon,
United Methodist Communications

The 30-second television spots will run for one week beginning April 25 throughout the greater Roanoke, Va., area during network and cable news programming. The 15-second radio tags began running April 23 throughout most of southwest Virginia surrounding Blacksburg, where 33 people, including the lone gunman, died in the April 16 campus shooting rampage.

The church's $32,000 media response is expected to reach approximately 378,000 households, or 83 percent of the Roanoke area market, and is being funded by various sources within the Virginia Conference and grants from United Methodist Communications and the United Methodist Committee on Relief.

It comes on the heels of a United Methodist media campaign during the season of Lent that sprinkled the Roanoke District with billboard messages such as "for all the days that end in 'why'" and "another force but fear."

"It was interesting that those (messages) … were selected because they're certainly very appropriate now," Rhodes said.

The Lenten media campaign also established an advertising presence in the Roanoke District that enabled the church to respond quickly and place new spots soon after the shootings. Rhodes said the Roanoke District and Virginia Conference are working aggressively with United Methodist Communications to purchase more media placements for the spots.

"We think it's a very powerful message, and we want to reach out to as many people as we can who were affected by this tragedy and are truly hurting," she said.

Responding after tragedies

The United Methodist Church began offering a media response to national tragedies following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the United States in 2001. It continued to "project the voice of the church into situations of human suffering and great tragedy" after the 2004 tsunami in the Indian Ocean and Hurricane Katrina on the Gulf Coast in 2005, according to the Rev. Larry Hollon, chief executive of United Methodist Communications, which produces media spots for the denomination.

United Methodist-sponsored billboards placed in southwest Virginia during Lent have taken on a new significance.

"What is important in these situations is that people are questioning deeply how to explain human suffering and to comprehend a role for God in human suffering," Hollon said. "This gives us the opportunity for the people of The United Methodist Church to say that God suffers with us, is present with us as a source of strength and is a force for healing and hope and not a cause. And that we are not abandoned."

Being able to respond quickly -- to both develop the spots and place them before wide media audiences -- is especially important, he said.

"In today's media environment, if the church is able to turn on a dime to be a presence in the public conversation, the church can offer a word of hope," Hollon said. "It can offer healing. It can be a grounding presence for us when we are in grief and in shock and attempting to make sense of situations that are beyond rational understanding."

*Aldrich is news editor of United Methodist News Service.

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


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