Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Virginia Tech

I stood at the microphone in front of the congregation watching the screen. As each new face flashed up from the PowerPoint projector onto the screen, I leaned closer to the microphone and slowly read the name. I read the names clear and loud, not hesitating and not pausing to correct what was probably a wrong pronunciation of some of the difficult names. I simply read each name as clear and correct as possible; the PowerPoint program creating long pauses between each one. The congregation was silent in the candle light of this memorial service. Many of the pictures were obviously, posed, professional senior pictures from high school. Some of the pictures were spontaneous and funny, one girl with a giggling smile and her tongue sticking out, one of a young man in his band uniform hamming it up for the camera, another a casual photograph with a baseball cap and bright smile, another of a man in a military uniform probably from a high school prep school showing a broad, wide smile. Name after name after name; the instructors and faculty were gathered at the end, a gifted group of talented, educated people whose different names reflect our world community. Names, names and names, all different, all unique, all bright and beautiful faces, all Virginia Tech, and now all dead. I pray to the Lord.
My wife, Kris, carried the phone out to me in the yard where I was cutting the grass, encouraging me to take this call. I let the lawnmower shut down, and chatted for a moment with the Rev. Song Kang. I was very pleased and honored to be invited to the Memorial Service for the Virginia Tech shooting victims that very evening at our Harrisburg Korean Presbyterian Church. I had heard that there were some incidents of harassment against their community since the shooter was Korean American. Kris and I quickly decided that we would go to this service as a family. We prepared ourselves for the argument we knew we would get from our sons, when they got home from school on a sunny Friday afternoon, and were immediately told that we were going to church together on Friday evening. But we spent our dinner time talking about Virginia Tech. We talked about the fact that our son Kyle had been accepted into the honors program at VT, and Kyle and I had visited and toured there last year. Kyle could be a student at VT. I described the beautiful campus and the gorgeous mountains of Virginia which nestle the little university town of Blacksburg. So Kris and I insisted that we had to pay our respect, to pray for these families, and we were going together to this memorial service at the Korean Harrisburg Presbyterian Church that Friday evening; (and as a concession to our boys we agreed to go out for ice cream after the service.)
I preached at the service. My message was a brief, heartfelt reflection on Psalm 46:1, “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.” The congregation then all lit candles, the PowerPoint of photographs was started, and there was an extended time of prayer. These Korean American Presbyterians pray deeply and fervently and at great length. I was blessed by the depth of their prayers. Their perseverance in prayer was much longer than mine.
One particular prayer concern that came from a member of the congregation touched me. Prayers were being requested for the shooter’s family and also for all our children. The children of immigrants to the United States live with unique burdens and stress. They live between two cultures, wanting in some ways to remember and claim their heritage from Korea but also wanting to become full and complete members of America. Living in these two different worlds creates terrible pressure for these children. Combine that pressure with serious mental illness and an incomprehensible tragedy results.
In the midst of an awful, evil tragedy a very small touch of grace happened for our family. As we pulled into the parking lot at the Harrisburg Korean Church, another family pulled into the parking spot next to us only a moment later, so that we were all getting out of our cars and walking to the church building together. This other family included a mother, father and a teenage son. Our son Michael, who is in ninth grade, immediately called out to the other boy. They are classmates together in Derry High School and sit next to one another in one of their classes. I know how high school boys behave at school. My son and this Korean American young man may have been close school friends, and may have talked about many different subjects and topics together, and may have worked on school work together. But in the context of their high school time together they would probably never have shared the fact that they are each very devout Christians and very active in Presbyterian Churches. But this evening, walking across the parking lot at the Harrisburg Korean Church, these two high school boys shared a new bond and a new relationship created by a shared worship experience in memory of Virginia Tech. I pray these two young men moved a bit closer to each as friends across the cultural barriers and closer to the church which calls us all together in the name of Jesus Christ.
I pray to the Lord.