Photo Courtesy Bret Gresham/UMNS
The Rev. Bret Gresham
When I graduated from Virginia Tech in 2001, I understood Ut Prosim (“That I May Serve”) as a motto – my University’s motto to be exact – but just a motto. Coming back to my alma mater in 2009 to be the campus minister of the Wesley Foundation, I have had the opportunity to witness a change in the spirit of the university community. Instead of service just being a part of our motto, it has become a way of life – an aspect of the community to be embodied by every student, faculty and staff member.
April 16, 2007, was a day that forever changed Virginia Tech and the Blacksburg community. The tragedy that occurred that day could have broken our community, creating division and hatred. However, through all the pain, grief and struggle that followed the shootings, Virginia Tech has become a closer community intent on serving one another and others, symbolizing our unity, resolve, and that “We will prevail … We are Virginia Tech” (Nikki Giovanni).
Over the past four years that I have served as the campus minister at the Wesley Foundation, there are fewer and fewer students who were on campus the day of the shooting. The few that remain in school, in some capacity, still struggle going to class due to fear, are still trying to process a new “normal” in their college routine, and find it difficult when there are other shootings in the news.
The majority of our students are a part of the tragedy only through relationships, the sharing of stories, and being a part of a community that has experienced tremendous loss. However, all of us together proclaim that we will “neVer forgeT” and share a commitment to be a community that is strong, passionate and intentional.
This past April 16 I perused a Facebook group called “VT Confessions,” in which comments about the shooting ran the gamut: from those feeling that we should remember that 33 VT students who died that day to those who don’t want to acknowledge the shooter as a Hokie; from pleas for more mental health awareness and gun control to the need for more security and protection; from passionate words of remembrance and pain to words of hope and love.
Some parts of the community are ready to move forward and others still need time to grieve and find a way through the pain. But the tragedy we all experienced in some way cultivated a sense of community amongst what we call Hokie Nation that is stronger than ever before.
This sense of community is witnessed in the deep concern for one another and the university’s commitment to “Unlock the Potential” in each of our students.
In a unique situation for a public university, Virginia Tech welcomes faith communities and campus ministries into the life of its students. As a result the Wesley Foundation, and the students that are a part of the ministry, have an amazing opportunity to witness to the profound blessings that community can bring, to live out their faith journey in concert with their collegiate experience, and embody a love for God and neighbor that can transform the lives of those who need it most.
Our students live out their understanding of community by welcoming all people into ministry at Wesley, gathering with other faith communities to share in understanding and a vision for reconciliation, and being an integral part of the university as homecoming candidates, resident advisors, and research assistants.
Using initiatives within the Division of Student Affairs, like Strengths Quest, students are able to see how their faith plays an important role in their vocational and educational development. Blending the two dynamics of their college lives helps to create a positive experience throughout their years in higher education.
Probably the most influential role the Wesley Foundation has played in the healing, grieving and rebuilding process is through the desire to serve one another.
Whether it is participating in the 3.2 for 32 Run of Remembrance, Interfaith Service Immersion Trips to the Dominican Republic, the creation of 209 Manna Ministries (a food bank for students run out of Wesley), or assisting with the RAFT Crisis Hotline, our students seek to live out their call to “Love Out Loud” in service and mission to the university and Blacksburg community, the nation, and throughout the world.
The Virginia Tech community is definitely different than when I was a student and I believe the grief, pain, struggle and adversity that the Hokie Nation has endured during and since the shootings created an understanding that our University motto Ut Prosim is more than a motto, but rather a way of life that will connect and hold us together as we serve one another in love.
The Rev. Bret Gresham leads the Wesley Foundation at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, VA. This essay was distributed by United Methodist News Service.