April 16, 2007 was already a strange day in Blacksburg, Virginia. Nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains, Blacksburg is accustomed to unusual weather patterns. But 35 degrees, snow flurries and 60 mph wind gusts are still odd for spring even in a town where the joke is, “If you don’t like our weather, wait an hour and it’ll be something else.”

I was taking the day off that Monday. As ridiculous as it now seems, I thought I had a problem. My printer had gone out and in my mind I was complaining that I had to go out in that wretched weather to buy a new one. Moving slowly, having no urgency to be anywhere, I had just stepped to another room when I heard my cell phone ringing. Unable to reach it I thought, “They’ll leave a voice message and I’ll call them back.” Seconds later it was ringing again. Experience told me this call was important.

Answering the phone I heard a member of the local rescue squad say, “Do you know what’s going on? There’s shooting . . . lots of it. Somebody’s inside Norris Hall and they’re shooting the place up. You better get to the hospital fast.”

I serve not only as the pastor of Blacksburg Baptist Church, but also as a chaplain of the Blacksburg Police Department. Sensing the day was about to thrust me into places where instant identification would be crucial, I grabbed my badge and my police uniform from the closet. Before I could get dressed the phone was ringing again and again.

A police lieutenant yelled, “Pray! Pray hard! Don’t stop. Go to the hospital as fast as you can.” Another call came from an unknown number. Though still unsure who it was, I will never forget the voice: “It’s terrible. Come quickly. We need your help.”


Within two minutes I was racing to the hospital and I could tell something truly terrible was unfolding. Law enforcement units from all over the region were streaming west toward Virginia Tech as I rushed east toward the hospital.

I called the lieutenant for an update. I had no idea he was personally loading injured and dying students into his police SUV and taking them two blocks away to the staging area where ambulances were now lining up to transport the wounded. Asking where he was, he said, “I can’t talk now. Get to the hospital as fast as you can. This is bad. I’ve never seen anything like it.”

Arriving before the wail of the first sirens could be heard from approaching ambulances, the Emergency Department of Montgomery Regional Hospital was surreal, looking much like an episode of “ER.” Doctors, nurses and technicians suited in their sterile gowns, the entire hospital abuzz with the trauma alert, four surgical suites cleared for trauma surgery. It was eerie and, oddly, quite reassuring.

Tragedy is not new to me. While in college I served as a sheriff’s deputy while also working part-time for a local funeral home. Later while serving my first rural church, I was a captain with the county’s fire and rescue service. I have seen my share of death and injury . . . but not like this.

Before the first ambulance left the university the lieutenant called again: “I’ve just put eight students in ambulances and they’re all hurt bad. Tell them to be ready.” I passed the word to the trauma staff just as the paramedics on the ambulances began radioing the hospital. Within minutes the sirens were blaring into the hospital driveway as we stood ready to unload the broken students.

Yelling “red,” meaning the students were critical and a top priority, we grabbed the stretchers and pushed them to waiting medical teams. One girl who was shot several times grabbed my hand and said, “Hold me. I’m gonna die.” I held her as long as I could. Thank God, she did not die.

By now the driveway was filled with ambulances bringing 18 of the 25 gunshot victims to our hospital. Many students were badly wounded, some less so, but all were stunned and shocked that such a thing could happen. They mirrored the feelings of the entire community.

The worst was yet to come. As the first line of ambulances unloaded their shattered cargo we all became annoyed that no other sirens were approaching. What was the hold up? What was taking so long? As we stood in the ambulance bay awaiting more victims a nurse came to me with tears in her eyes. “That’s all of them,” she said, “but they’re saying they have at least twelve dead, maybe more.” More indeed!

It was only then that it hit us. There would be no more sirens. A silence had befallen Norris Hall, a silence no siren could awaken.


Three of those students who fell silent that Monday often attended our church. No other protestant church in Blacksburg saw so many of its young people silenced by that brutal assault on the Virginia Tech campus.

Austin Michelle Cloyd was an 18-year-old freshman at Virginia Tech. Her family had moved to Blacksburg two years ago. Her father had received an appointment as a professor of accounting at VT. Ironically, some of his classes met in Norris Hall, but he had no classes the morning of April 16th. I suspect he still ponders if that was a blessing or a curse.

Austin was a strikingly beautiful young lady who was brilliant of intellect, highly athletic and filled with a growing social conscience. Each summer of high school she served with the Appalachian Service Project where she ministered in Christ’s name to the impoverished and underprivileged of that region.

Brian Bluhm attended Northstar Church in Blacksburg while attending our church for special events or occasionally with friends. Brian was a graduate student at Virginia Tech. Also one who was intellectually gifted, Brian was a committed Christian and a dedicated Detroit Tigers fan. With a smile and a laugh that could instantly fill a room with joy, Brian always wore a Detroit Tigers baseball cap. He was a proud fan who would turn his cap into a “rally cap” whenever anyone needed a bit of a rally in their lives. If Brian ever had a bad day, I never witnessed it. Generally quiet, but upbeat and jovial, Brian loved his family, Christ and life with a passion.

Caitlin Hammeren was a girl who seemed to sparkle when you looked at her. Always smiling, Caitlin loved singing. A star in her high school chorus, she was the kind of person who made others feel better just by being near them. A resident assistant who was a constant helpmate to the students in her dorm, she was studying French and international politics. Caitlin had big dreams for the future, she had the drive and the intelligence to make them come true, and all her dreams included God and the greater good of humankind.

Like most of Blacksburg, our church spent the following days trying to make sense of the senseless act that so shattered our town and our university. Until 9:46 AM on April 16th, a broken printer and a day of blustery weather were among our more significant crises. Oh, that is an exaggeration to be sure, yet ours were the normal problems of everyday life. Seldom did this area’s residents find themselves shocked by the presence of sheer darkness. But this event shook us. More than once we heard the words, “It feels like God took a day off that Monday.”


A personal crisis for every pastor in town was what to say to our churches the following Sunday when we knew first hand the despair being felt all over town. As a police chaplain I had participated in making 20 of the 32 death notifications in the first three days following the shootings.

Furthermore, like many, I was spiritually frustrated. I suspect no one prayed harder for life and safety than did I as I sped down the highway that morning. I suspect only the parents and loved ones of the dead and wounded were more disappointed with the outcome of those prayers. For a time I found it easy, almost satisfying, to be angry with God. Yet, as the week passed I found myself almost obsessed with a thought that came to me in the evening of April 16th.

The police operational command post had been established adjacent to Norris Hall. Having been summoned there by the Chief of Police, I uncomfortably marched up the steep walk toward that blood stained building that would be forever scarred by the carnage of the day. It was a sad, angry and heart-wrenching climb. Yet as I ascended those darkened steps a thought entered my mind, one that refused to leave despite my ardent attempts to quell it with what I felt was well-deserved bitterness: “Today, perhaps for the first time, we truly understand how Christ felt in the Garden of Gethsemane.”

On the eve of crucifixion it was Jesus who prayed with fervor, “Father, if it be your will, let this cup pass from me.” But it didn’t. Jesus also had to face a troubled and deadly future while claiming a hope based on nothing more than the same simple faith we must claim everyday — the faith that God can take suffering and death, and He can turn them into the miracle of life. This is what our people needed to hear. This is what the preachers needed to preach.


Blacksburg Baptist is a large and vibrant church that holds three morning services by necessity on a normal Sunday, but April 22nd was anything but normal. The Sunday after the massacre saw crowds exceeding those of Easter Sunday. People were hungry, even desperate, for a word of hope.

I chose Romans 8:28 as my text in the belief that these simple and familiar words of St. Paul would become our watchword for the future: “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love Him, for those who are called according to his purpose.”

My proclamation, like that of Paul, was straightforward and positive. Yes, God does work for the good of everyone in times of trial, but there is an advantage for believers. We have the advantage of knowing that as “those who love Him,” we can recognize the hand of God working amidst the tragedy.

Moreover, while God issues His call to the world, we Christians can hear that call with a different ear, a spiritually attuned ear. As Christ-followers we are able to recognize from whence the call comes, and as disciples it is our duty to not only claim the peace that passes all understanding, but we are to respond to God’s call with confidence. We must become the instruments of God’s goodness and re-creation. Our call is to go into the grief and pain with a sure and certain faith that God will work through us to bring something good from the tragic.


In the days following the shootings some of my church members were walking into the War Memorial Chapel at Virginia Tech to pray. As they entered they met five Amish men exiting the chapel. Asking the men why they were there, they responded, “Everyone was so good to us when our girls were killed in Pennsylvania. We felt we had to come to do what we could to help.”

Someone had proclaimed the Word of God to those Amish men, and they heard that word as both an act of empowerment and as a summons to embody God’s goodness as a work of hope.

Like those Amish men, we in Blacksburg are the latest to experience an unwanted and undeserved visit by the sinister darkness of life. And like those hurting Amish fathers, we must be the latest to hear and respond to God’s call. Just as God called “the beloved” from around the world to touch our broken hearts, so we now must accept God’s call to do everything possible to prevent such a tragedy from ever occurring again.

And if, God forbid, such a tragedy should occur, we must be the ones who will partner with God to bring light to the darkness. We must join our Lord in creating something good amidst the worst that life can send. Just as others have done for us in recent days, we must be the ones to shine the light so those who have been briefly blinded by the darkness may know an eternal truth: The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

What did I preach that Sunday morning? I preached the truth. God did not take a day off on April 16th. Why this sad and deranged young man chose to turn our town into a sea of tears may never be known, but I cannot and will not believe it was because God was absent. I cannot and will not believe that God willed such a wound for our town. No, God was present, shedding tears, offering love, issuing His call and bringing strength amidst the wounds.

In his novel A Farewell to Arms, Ernest Hemmingway wrote, “Life breaks everyone, and a few become strong in the broken places.” We in Blacksburg have indeed been broken, but by God’s grace we will become strong in the broken places, and by God’s grace we will prevail.


Tommy R. McDearis is the Senior Pastor of the Blacksburg Baptist Church, Blacksburg, VA, he is a minister to the Virginia Tech community, and he is a chaplain of the Blacksburg Police Department.

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