By Ralph L. Amateis
Monday, April 16, 2007, dawned cold and windy with light snow blowing in all directions. It seemed like a normal early spring day at Virginia Tech where I work. But by 10 a.m., the campus was under lockdown. As the horror of the deadliest shooting rampage in U.S. history became known, I didn’t know what to pray. All I could muster was a simple whisper of “Jesus.”
That afternoon I prayer walked through campus, stopping in front of Norris Hall, the scene of most of the shootings. I sensed God was going to be glorified here somehow. Could it be that through this tragedy He would bring about revival, transformation, and salvation at Virginia Tech?
I and the other members of the Christian Faculty Fellowship (CFF) had met each week for the previous eight years to pray for the students, faculty, and staff at Virginia Tech. In the wake of the shooting, we believed our prayer posture in the coming days and weeks would be critical for God’s redemptive purposes on campus in a way similar to how it was for the early church in Jerusalem following the Lord’s crucifixion. But how could we pray for those redemptive purposes to be released?
Looking at how the believers in Jerusalem responded as the tragedy of the crucifixion gave way to the birth of the early church pointed us to three guidelines that we applied to our prayers. Although every tragedy is unique, I believe that these prayer principles are general and transferable for Christians to use in the aftermath of any tragedy.
Pray from a posture of kingdom unity.The book of Acts says a lot about the unity of believers: “All these with one accord were devoting themselves to prayer” (1:14, esv); “They were all together in one place” (2:1); “All the believers were together” (2:44); and “they raised their voices together in prayer to God” (4:24). These early believers united in spiritual mindset and physical proximity. This agreement enabled them to reflect the unity that exists between Jesus and the Father so that the glory of God could be revealed (Jn. 17:20-23).
Following the Virginia Tech tragedy, our Christian faculty members put this principle of praying in unity into practice. On the evening of April 16, we gathered with fellow believers in nearby Blacksburg for a hastily arranged prayer meeting to pray for the survivors, the families of those who had died, and the family of the shooter.
The next day, President Bush and Virginia Governor Tim Kaine came to the campus to meet with victims’ families. As the VT community gathered for a memorial service, CFF continued to pray for physical and emotional healing as well as comfort. In front of a makeshift memorial constructed by students, Christian counselors, ministers, and our faculty group moved among fearful, despondent, and angry students, helping them ask God for healing and comfort.
Pray for confession, repentance, and forgiveness for the sins of the whole.The prayer of the disciples coupled with the spoken word of God resulted in conviction of sin, confession, and repentance (Acts 2:19-38). But the disciples took prayer for forgiveness one step further. In a prayer reminiscent of Jesus’ petition for forgiveness for His killers, Stephen cried, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them” (Acts 7:60).
During the weeks after the shootings, we sought the Lord about how to pray for what He wanted to do next. God led us into a season of prayer for repentance and forgiveness. As VT faculty members, we were positioned spiritually to be able to stand before God in repentance for sins committed on the campus. As Daniel interceded before God for his people (Dan. 9:3-19), we stood before God on behalf of our school and asked for forgiveness and mercy. Praying and listening for His will, we felt He gave us this prayer for our campus:
Father, we come to You in the name of Your Son, our Lord Jesus Christ. We thank You for putting us here at VT as faculty to serve You, to reach out to our colleagues and students with the message of life and hope through Christ’s redemptive work, and to pray for change in the culture of this campus.
We recognize that the heinous acts committed on April 16 on this campus were ultimately the result of sin entering the human race. We confess our sin of rebellion against a holy and loving God. As Your children, we intercede on behalf of this university and ask Your forgiveness for the sins we have all committed here. We acknowledge that Christ alone can reconcile us to You through His atoning death and that He alone can heal the broken lives of everyone affected by this tragedy.
Pray for physical and spiritual healing, blessing, and salvation. The disciples encouraged others to confess their responsibility for the crucifixion and repent so that their sins could be “wiped out, that times of refreshing may come from the Lord, and that he may send the Christ, who has been appointed for you–even Jesus.” (Acts 3:19-20).
In addition to praying for physical and spiritual healing and comfort, we decided to pray for cleansing of the physical location and spiritual environment. We sensed that the land was defiled by the shootings in the same way that the spilling of innocent blood polluted the land God had given Israel (Num. 35:33; Ps. 106:38). Just as renovations to Norris Hall would wipe away physical traces of the horror, we felt we needed to ask God to wipe away the spiritual effects of the tragedy. We prayed,
Please cleanse this land of the defilement of the blood spilled at West Ambler Johnson Hall and Norris Hall. We ask in Jesus’ name that in Your mercy and grace You will restore this land and these buildings to their proper function and that all who enter these halls will be reminded of Your great compassion and love, not the tragic loss of life. Please give our administration wisdom in making decisions on what should be done with Norris Hall in particular. And please bless all the students this summer, that those returning and those entering as new students, whether from this country or from abroad, will sense who You are and know that You love each one. May many turn to Christ in this coming year. Bless all Your children on campus—students, faculty, and staff—as we seek Your kingdom above all; let our light shine for You, the eternal God who desires that all may know life through Your Son.
About a month later, the parents of a murdered student arrived on campus with an intercessory team from their home congregation. We joined the group as the police opened Norris Hall to the combined intercessory team that now numbered about 50. Led by the student’s father, the worship, praise, and intercessory prayer were powerful and moving. We prayed over every floor and classroom for forgiveness, release, and cleansing. When we were finished, we sensed that God had cleared the way for His redemptive work that would come.
Acts also tells us the result of the early disciples’ prayer posture: Lost souls were redeemed (2:38-41), captives were set free (4:23), and testimony of God’s sovereign grace was given to all (4:33). We experienced similar results at Virginia Tech. As a new school year began in the fall, the spiritual landscape was already changing. Worship and prayer events on campus and in town brought Christians from many churches together. A well-known Christian apologist spoke on campus with more than 7,000 people in attendance over two nights. Testimonies of students and faculty members coming to Christ began to confirm God’s redemptive work among us.
CFF continues to meet for ongoing intercession every Friday. As we pray for all that God will do in the coming months and years, we are filled with gratitude for all who have prayed for Virginia Tech during this difficult time. It is our desire that our prayers find God’s heart in the aftermath of tragedy and that our lessons and experiences can be a resource and blessing to the greater body of Christ whenever it is called upon to pray in the wake of tragedy.
Ralph L. Amateis is a senior research associate in the forestry department at Virginia Tech. Six weeks before the shooting, student Lauren McCain, who was killed in Norris Hall, gave a very powerful and prophetic testimony. Listen to it at http://heavens-gates.com/vatechlauren.
©2008 Ralph L. Amateis, used by permission. This article originally appeared in the March-April 2008 edition of Pray! magazine (www.praymag.com )