Newsline Extra for April 26, 2007

“Cast your burden on the Lord, and he will sustain you….” — Psalm 55:22b

1) Brethren pastor and congregation respond to needs at Virginia Tech.
2) Brethren organizations offer resources following Virginia shootings.
3) Brethren bits.

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1) Brethren pastor and congregation respond to needs at Virginia Tech.

“I’ve had an opportunity since the tragedy here to do what I feel Brethren do very well, which is to try to respond to needs as they come up,” said Marilyn Lerch, pastor of Good Shepherd Church of the Brethren in Blacksburg, Va.

Following the shootings in which 33 students and faculty died on the university campus on April 16, Lerch has worked behind the scenes to convene the pastors in town, and has taken part in campus ministry. She herself is a graduate of the university, having earned a bachelors degree in nutrition and a masters in education at Virginia Tech.

She credits her relative freedom as a part-time pastor–she also works as coordinator of the Training in Ministry program of the Brethren Academy for Ministerial Leadership–with giving her flexibility in a time of crisis to seek out needs that are not being met by others. The Church of the Brethren “may not have the oomph that the Presbyterians have,” she said, “or the numbers that the United Methodists have on a Sunday morning, but I’ve been amazed with all the ways that are there for us to minister.”

Set in a very visible location, the Good Shepherd church has offered its sanctuary for those who need a place to pray. The sanctuary was open the evening after the shootings occurred. That evening a television crew from Roanoke, Va., came to the church to interview members who are Virginia Tech faculty, and to talk with Lerch. The pastor said she attempted to offer a balance to the reporting of the violent day.

Media contacts grew, as Lerch was then interviewed by National Public Radio, “The Washington Post,” “The Roanoke Times,” and others. A crew from NPR even attended and recorded the Sunday morning worship service at Good Shepherd on April 22. Lerch said she asked only that recorders be turned off for the time of sharing of joys and concerns.

“It is intimidating to me to be a spokesperson, but I also see it as an opportunity,” she said. “At times like these, the church needs to speak out. Many large societal questions have been raised by the circumstances of the tragedy.” While some have been criticized for politicizing the event, Lerch said she feels the “big” questions are being asked because they touch lives. “I believe the Church of the Brethren has something to add to the discussion, when the talk turns to issues like mental illness and gun control. It has been important to me, for instance, that 33 candles are lit as we remember those who have died, not 32,” she said.

As one of the campus ministers, within a few hours of the shootings Lerch visited with the dean of students, out of whose office the campus ministry operates, and visited the local hospital where wounded had been taken, as well as The Inn at Virginia Tech where family members and friends of students gathered to await word.”Then I called together the local pastors,” she said, explaining that the Blacksburg ministers have not been meeting together regularly. When the pastors met on the morning following the shootings, “things just began to emerge that I could do,” Lerch said.

She has spent hours at the campus chapel since the shootings, for example. “Constant streams of people come in needing quiet time,” she said. One day she was able to provide a listening ear for the family of one of the professors who was killed. The chapel also has helped receive the flowers that have been poured out in gifts to the university. This week Lerch and the Good Shepherd pianist, who is a member of the university staff, are leading chapel services following requests for more worship experiences from some who attended the memorial events on the drill field. Because the school is a state institution and does not offer regular chapel services, Lerch coordinated the holding of special chapel services with the university staff.

Along with the overwhelming media coverage, other unexpected problems have faced the university and its campus ministers. “We’ve also been inundated with religious groups, some of which have been very aggressive,” Lerch said. “That makes it more difficult to encourage students and even faculty to consider the resources of faith. You just look with sadness at what’s going on in some cases in the name of faith, turning some people away from even thinking that God is a resource in this situation.

“The local ministers “realize that we’re looking at longterm needs,” she said. They also have been working in concert with the university, which she said “has been very thoughtful in its handling of the situation.” Many clergy are contemplating what it means to have so much of the healing process being done online by students, she added. “Certainly the age of technology has deeply affected both the circumstances around this tragedy as well as the aftermath.”Lerch expressed thanks to the denomination for its support. After experiencing “that kind of affirmation of prayer,” she hopes that she will do better for others in such situations.

“There are a variety of groups that need prayer right now,” she reported, “one of them being the Good Shepherd congregation. We at Good Shepherd are a small congregation, but it is staggering how this tragedy has affected our little group personally.” She also asked for prayer specifically for faculty of the university, who this week are returning to teaching. “We’ve lived through a time here that none of us would ever hope to encounter,” she said.


2) Brethren organizations offer resources following Virginia shootings.

Church of the Brethren groups are providing resources reflecting on the Virginia Tech tragedy, at as well as other websites. The online resources include links provided by the Association of Brethren Caregivers (ABC), Disaster Child Care, and Good Shepherd Church of the Brethren in Blacksburg, Va.

The website of Good Shepherd Church of the Brethren is offering reflections on the tragedy at Virginia Tech, go to These resources have been created and used by those connected with the Good Shepherd congregation, including pastor Marilyn Lerch.

ABC through its Voices: Ministry on Mental Illness, will host a series of webcasts reflecting on mental illness and the tragedy. The webcasts will be posted on the denomination’s new webcast site the week of April 30, go to

ABC also is offering a collection of links to resources about mental illness and ways that congregations can respond with hope and love to those experiencing mental illness. Also offered are links to resources for coping with trauma, and resources for family life. Go to

Disaster Child Care is offering a brochure called “Trauma, Helping Your Child Cope,” that gives advice to parents, teachers, and others who care for children during times of trauma and disaster. The brochure is available at or a supply can be ordered from the Disaster Child Care office, call 800-451-4407. A supply of the brochures has been sent to the district offices of Virlina District and Shenandoah District.


3) Brethren bits.
  • Among those who have been in prayer following the shootings at Virginia Tech are congregations in Virlina District, which includes in its borders the area of Blacksburg, Va. Congregations holding special services or opening their sanctuaries for prayer have included Christiansburg (Va.) Church of the Brethren, Vinton (Va.) Church of the Brethren, and several congregations in Roanoke, Va., including First Church of the Brethren, Williamson Road Church of the Brethren, Oak Grove Church of the Brethren, and Central Church of the Brethren, which planned to conclude its service outside around a peace pole.
  • At Juniata College, a Church of the Brethren school in Huntingdon, Pa., students and staff responded by holding a candlelight prayer vigil on campus in solidarity with their peers who were grieving at Virginia Tech. “We had over 100 people show up and had some very touching and personal sharing from two students, one from Blacksburg and another from northern Virginia who had several high school friends attending Virginia Tech,” reported campus chaplain David Witkovsky. “I pray that it helped our students and that our prayers will touch those who are struggling to make sense of this tragedy.”


Newsline is produced by Cheryl Brumbaugh-Cayford, director of news services for the Church of the Brethren General Board. Contact the editor at or 800-323-8039 ext. 260. Mary Dulabaum, Helen Stonesifer, and David Witkovsky contributed to this report. Newsline appears every other Wednesday, with the next regularly scheduled Newsline set for May 23; other special issues may be sent as needed. Newsline stories may be reprinted if Newsline is cited as the source. For more Church of the Brethren news and features, subscribe to “Messenger” magazine, call 800-323-8039 ext. 247.


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