UNC Chapel Hill Lutheran Campus Ministry students join thousands of others for a candlelight vigil in the Smith Center.
As many pastors will tell you, you never know what the next moment or day will bring. We can head off to the church or office thinking we will be doing some sermon studying, planning the fall stewardship campaign, or some other activity, only for all of that to change with one phone call of some emergency. Well, the same applies to campus ministry and being a campus pastor. Just one week into this fall semester, the alarms were sounded on campus and text alerts were sent to everyone that there was an active shooter on campus. Later, we were to learn that a graduate student shot a professor numerous times.
Sitting in my office after locking the doors of the church, I jumped on my computer for information, and 45 minutes later came a report that a suspect was apprehended. Thinking it was over, I relaxed. The “All Clear” siren and text never came; then came the report of the shooter being still at large. The shooter was captured two miles from campus, two hours after the shooting, and the “All Clear” was given an hour later. Reading this and knowing that “only” one person was killed would lead people to think, “What is the big deal?” However, students were caught in a three-hour lockdown wherever they were. Some were in classrooms in the same building, having heard the dozen gunshots. Others in apartments or dorms isolated from others and friends freaking out in other parts of campus.
Shortly after the “All Clear” was given, there was an impromptu gathering in the Campus Center where a dozen Lutheran Campus Ministry (LCM) students shared their stories, along with tears and hugs as they basked in the love and presence of Jesus shared around the LCM kitchen island. It was then that I realized the great trauma many had gone through. In our LCM group, one first-year student was in the basement of Woolen Gym and sought cover in the first room available which was a yoga room where she hid under the yoga mats praying that the shooter didn’t find her and whose parents kept her on the phone for the entire time to comfort her. Another student who worked on staff in the library next to the scene of the shooting went to silence an emergency exit and when opening the door was confronted by a plain-clothed policeman with a pistol pointing at her. Students and faculty were locked in classrooms with no options for use of the restroom, so they had to create a special corner with a trash can for relief. If you want a sense of the emotions and stress that were felt that day, look on the internet for “The Daily Tar Heel Cover Shooting.” The cover page is entirely text messages that students sent or received that day.
The text I received was ten minutes after the “All Clear” was given. From a first-year student just a week into his college career, it read, “Hey, Pastor Mark, could we have worship tonight? I know that it may seem like a stupid thing to ask in a time like this, but I think it would be good for a lot of people. It would be good for me.” We planned and held a small prayer vigil in our Campus Center four hours later, and welcomed about 15 people, including a first-year student from the Egyptian Coptic tradition who met a Lutheran while hiding under a table in the dining hall for three hours. The vigil was a time of prayers for peace in our hearts, peace for our campus and all students, staff, and faculty, and peace for our world.
As I drove home that evening, I gave thanks to God for allowing me the privilege to serve in campus ministry and to be present for moments like these. I write this today to give you a glimpse into the world of campus ministry at a crisis moment, I invite your support of our ministry here or of one of the twelve other campus ministry sites in our synod. Whether it be through your ongoing Mission Support to the NC Synod or through being sure to do your best to connect your students at our universities to the local campus ministry. You may do that directly through the synod’s Campus Ministry webpage (for NC universities) or the LuMin website (for universities across the country).
Pastor Mark Coulter, UNC Lutheran Campus Ministry
LCM’ers enjoying ice cream together, October 2023.