Campus chapel offers 'safe space'

Chaplains provide "spiritual triage" on campus.


A stone and flowers for each shooting victim sit on one end of the drill field at the Virginia Tech campus.
Credit: Heather Moyer

""It's sort of like a spiritual triage out here."

So says the Rev. Kelly Sisson, pastor of Glade Church in Blacksburg, as she stands outside Virginia Tech's Memorial Chapel.

Sisson was asked by a school administrator to set up a team of chaplains at the chapel to be available to students. The chapel is at one of the campus drill field, not far from makeshift memorials set up for the 32 people killed on campus by a gunman on Monday.

Sisson was helping students cope, offering whatever help she could provide. For some, it's been directing them to counselors provided by the school. For others, it's been finding them the correct faith leader for their religion. And for many, it's just being there to listen.

"People are needing to tell their stories," she said.

The help provided is strictly in line with what school administrators and the director of counseling wanted, she noted.

"We want to ensure that this remains a safe space for all, religious or not," Sisson said. "We are insistent that we don't do anything here that is not what the director of counseling wants. We could do more damage than good if we're not on the same page."

Sisson was not going to try to answer the question of "why," saying she was not sure anyone can or should be doing that. Instead, the chaplains are encouraging expression and discussion. She said she was worried that Monday's first day back at classes will be difficult for everyone.

"It'll never be normal," she said. "It will be different."

The harder part, she added, might be when students head home when the semester ends in early May.

Glade Church's members have been just as busy as Sisson, as many are emergency responders, university officials or counselors of some type. She said their Sunday service will most likely be the first opportunity for the congregation to gather on its own.

"All of us are running on adrenaline right now, and many are just numb," she said.

The service will be one of hope, but Sisson said she won't try to offer answers or cliches.

"I might try to talk more about self-care since that really needs to be talked about," she said.

Sisson plans to meet with other Blacksburg clergy to discuss a response, but for now they are just staying in touch via e-mails and brief phone calls.

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