Five years ago, on February 14, 2008, news came out of Northern Illinois University that stunned not only the campus, but the community, our church, the nation and the world. A former student, slipped into a lecture hall and opened fire on 27 students, killing five and injuring 21 before turning the gun on himself.
Mayhem erupted and misinformation was rampant, according to then Senior Pastor of First United Methodist of DeKalb the Rev. Jane Eesley who now serves as Senior Pastor at Christ United Methodist in Rockford. “We got word about it in the late afternoon,” she remembered. “There was some rumor that went around that there were two shooters; there was a fear that some other shooter was at large in the city, which was later unfounded. We immediately called our preschool in case there was a shooter at large. There was a lot of fear and confusion.”
Once the reality of the situation was clear, the Rev. Laura Crites then Associate Pastor at First United Methodist Church in DeKalb, and who's home church is Charleston Wesley UMC, and NIU Campus Pastor Efrain Avila went to Kishwaukee Community Hospital, where many of the victims had been taken. “We were very impressed with how the Kishwaukee hospital handled it,” Crites recalled. “They opened their board room and got cookies and coffee and tea and called the clergy and asked if we could come in.”
Despite the best efforts of the hospital, confusion and panic ran rampant and church representatives addressed issues in alignment with their abilities. Crites cited her unique background, which enabled her to address issues that might have otherwise gone unnoticed. “I had been a mental health counselor for several years and before that I worked at a mental health crisis center where I worked with the police to talk people off of bridges and out of hostage situations, those kinds of things,” she said.
As a result, Crites focused on the practical aspect of the situation, thereby easing confusion and panic for loved ones. “I assessed some of the problems that people had while some of the victims were being airlifted to trauma centers,” she recalled. “People who had come racing in then had to find another hospital they never heard about. One of the things I ended up doing was running between parents and administration and finding out what hospital people were taken to.”
As Crites addressed the concrete aspects of the situation, others offered care according to individual needs.
“One of the people killed was Latina (Catalina Garcia) whose parents were struggling with English,” Eesley recalled. “Efrain translated for them and went with them to view the body of their daughter. He did a very powerful ministry and followed up with them to see how they were doing. There was a lot of being present, watching out for people, listening as people cried at the hospital,” Eesley said.
The next day, many areas churches, as well as NIU held prayer vigils. “Most churches had a service the next day,” said Eesley. “That Sunday many churches reworked what the message was going to be which people found very healing.”
At the time, the Rev. Larry Hilkemann said in response, "Before the families of NIU students Daniel (Parmenter), Catalina (Garcia), Ryanne (Mace), Julianna (Gehant) (and) Gayle (Dubowski) ever got word that their sons and daughters died in that campus carnage at DeKalb, God cried the first tears."
Candle light vigils were held, services changed gears, students returned and time went on, yet
the effects of the trauma remained fresh. “You realized that it spread out to so many people; it was tragic and terrifying for the students, also terrifying for faculty and staff. We had many church members that were staff members there and Laura sent out a group email to those people who had a NIU address writing them words of comfort and hope,” Eesley said.
After some time, NIU's staff began to contact their clergy with issues resulting from the event. “They started coming and saying, ‘here I am responsible for all of these people's children, and who am I? I can no more keep them safe than anybody else. How should I have reacted? Could we have done something differently?’” Crites, recalled. “And they were dealing with their own trauma and PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) issues. Some survivor guilt.”
According to Crites, long dormant issues, considered resolved, reasserted themselves in first responders and NIU staff. “People who are handing alcoholism and had been in recovery for a long time, some of them were tempted to start drinking again,” Crites said. “It brings other personal issues to light in ways that they didn't expect. They start to become bombarded in the middle of the night with all of the ideas. A lot of them come to clergy and ask what do I do with this stuff?”
On the first anniversary of the tragedy, plans were made to commemorate the event. Some in the faith community wondered about the advisability of it. “The next year there were freshmen who came in, and they knew about it, but it wasn't their story and then there were upper classmen who desperately wanted to talk about it,” Eesley recalled “But there were those who didn't want to talk about it and needed to handle it by moving on. It was a complex dilemma for many people. Was it helpful or hurtful to bring it up?”
Eesley said the following year volunteers from United Methodist churches throughout the DeKalb and Rockford districts knitted over a thousand prayer shawls which were passed out to participants in NIU events around the anniversary.
“When people make prayer shawls, they pray for the recipient,” Pastor Eesley said “It was one of those wonderful ministry situations that was a gift all around. It helped people who wanted to help and didn't know quite what to do and it meant so much to the people who received them.”
February 14, 2013 will mark the fifth anniversary of the violence and mayhem which took place on an innocuous afternoon at Northern Illinois University. A wreath will be placed on campus but little else is expected to be done to in remembrance. There is no doubt, however, that those who survived in the classroom, and the parents who received the heart wrenching calls announcing shattering their world, will enact their own day of remembrance, whether silently or with loved ones.
“There's a significance in anniversaries and tragedies It's kind of like when one of my parishioners loses a loved one on a birthday or Christmas because that special day is tainted forever,” said Crites, who now serves as Pastor at Hinckley First United Methodist Church. “A lot of people were saying that Valentines Day will forever be ruined for people in DeKalb and I don't know that has happened, especially now that it's five years later. Most of the students who were there aren't there now.”
Proliferation of Gun Violence
There have been 38 deaths on school campuses and 59 injuries since February 14, 2008, including those at NIU and the most recent incident at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut on December 14, 2012. Once again, the nation shuddered when faced with the news that a gunman had entered the school's first grade class and murdered 12 girls, eight boys and the six women staff members, after killing his mother at home.
The Sandy Hook shooting evoked many emotions for two retired pastors in the Illinois Great Rivers Conference (IGRC) and caused them to relive a five year old nightmare all over again. The Rev. Miley Palmer and his wife Janet, along with the Reverends Gene and Sally Mace lost their granddaughter, Ryanne Mace in the NIU shooting.
“It has changed everything,” Palmer said, reflecting on the proliferation of gun violence in schools. “Every shooting hits us all over again and strengthens our sense of commitment to keep things from staying the same.”
Palmer’s daughter and Ryanne’s mother, Mary Kay Mace, echoes her father’s concern. “What infuriates me is that it keeps happening,” she said. “My daughter’s gone; that is over. But each shooting brings it up again and there is no place where you are immune to it.”
Palmer joined with retired IGRC pastor Howard Daughenbaugh recently in penning a pastoral letter seeking to address the issue of gun violence. While raising some of the familiar issues associated with firearms, regulations and restrictions, the letter also called upon the church to play a role in helping to provide places of conversation among the faith community, including dialogues about the violence-obsessed culture in our nation, gun safety, violence prevention. The letter was co-signed by Gene and Sally Mace.
“It would be inexcusable for our society and, most of all, for the church to remain silent on the issue of gun violence in our midst. To do nothing or to do anything that will further arm our society is unconscionable and unfaithful,” the letter said. “Following the course of silence or the path that further encourages the development of an armed society does not enhance public security; it only increases the possibility that further tragic events will happen among us.”
The letter offers a 12-point plan aimed at addressing the issue. They include:
• The enforcement of present laws, particularly in bringing the data base of prohibited gun purchasers up to date.
• Extending present laws to cover all gun purchases, particularly at unlicensed firearms sales venues such as gun shows – and subsequent re-sales of those weapons in future years.
• Creating new laws to limit the sales of assault weapons, automatic weapons conversion kits, weapons that cannot be detected by metal-detection devices, and ammunition such as “cop-killer bullets” that are obviously designed to wreak massive damage on human victims; they are not for hunting game.
• Passing federal legislation to regulate the importation, manufacturing and sale of guns and ammunition to the general public.
• Developing (possibly through the United Nations) a legally-binding Arms Trade Treaty to regulate the transfer of all small arms and light weapons so as to reduce gun violence throughout the world.
• Bringing together mental health professionals, educators, and clergy, along with other appropriate groups, to initiate a national dialogue concerning the care of mentally and emotionally disturbed persons.
• A dialogue about the violence-obsessed culture in our nation. Surely the excessive depiction of violence in our mass media (movies, TV, video games, etc.) has an impact on our children and youth.
• Churches need to initiate dialogue within their own congregation and in their own community about gun safety, violence prevention, and what adults can do to help keep our children safe.
• A call to pastors to take leadership in their teaching role to help the congregation and community enter a dialogue about a wide-spread ideology in our nation that peace and justice can only be secured by violence.
• Churches and educators should come together with law enforcement officials to discuss issues of keeping our children, schools, and churches safe from gun violence.
• Churches and health care professionals also need to come together to discuss plans for helping children, families, and communities cope in the wake of publicized mass killings in schools and other public places.
Despite the horror brought about by continued gun violence, Crites believes God can bring about hope. “Nothing is so horrific that God can't wrench a blessing from it. We've seen that in the way that NIU and other universities have really stepped up their preparedness,” she said.
There are lots of blessings that came out of this,” Pastor Crites added. “They don't negate the tragedy, but we are so hypnotized into looking for the crisis, that we don't see the blessings.”
Read: Five Years Later: A Search for Common Ground on Gun Violence
*Jamie Greco is a freelance writer living in Elgin, Ill.
**Paul Black, IGCR Communications Director, contributed to this story.