BLACKSBURG, Va (Reuters) - By all accounts, the prayers started even before the gunshots stopped at Virginia Tech university, and the pleas to God from grief-stricken survivors of the massacre have continued ever since.
“God cares about Virginia Tech,” said Megan Martin, 24, joining about a dozen fellow students in a traveling prayer vigil that rambled across the sprawling campus a day after the worst U.S. shooting spree in modern history.
Carrying placards reading: “Jesus loves you,” “God knows and He cares,” and “Can we pray with you?” the small knot of students worked their way through the university grounds in Blacksburg, a Bible Belt town in the mountains of southwest Virginia.
At a memorial service on Tuesday, speakers including U.S. President George W. Bush urged students to persevere in hope or comfort one another in prayer as they struggled to cope.
“As the scripture tells us, don’t be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good,” Bush told the emotional students a day after Cho Seung-Hui, 23, an English literature student, gunned down 32 students and professors before killing himself.
Makeshift memorials have sprung up across the campus as students scrawled messages on banners in remembrance of the dead.
“God bless you Jarrett, your family, friends, and all of the victims and those around you. Enjoy the Lord’s kingdom,” read one note, referring to Jarrett Lane, an engineering student killed in the massacre.
“Be strong and courageous, Do not be terrified; for the Lord God is with you wherever you go,” read another, quoting the Bible.
“God is on our side,” said a third, signed only “Shawn B.”
Churches all over Blacksburg, a pretty mountain town, opened their doors the day of the shooting and have been welcoming mourners ever since.
At St. Francis Anglican Church a block from campus, a sign welcomed all for prayers throughout the day, adding: “priest available.” Inside, Vicar Chip Sills greeted a slow trickle of visitors with a handshake.
“I’m really just poised and ready for anything. Many people have a delayed reaction,” said Sills.
At a massive candlelight vigil on Tuesday, female students knelt before Pastor Josh Akin as he sang “Amazing Grace.”
“This is the Bible Belt, a lot of these young people already know the love of God,” Akin said.
After the vigil, 22-year-old Adam Henry said he always prayed, but that this week his prayers had been “a little longer” than usual.
“You’ve got to keep your focus on faith,” he said.
John Stremlau, associate director of peace programs at The Carter Center in Atlanta, said Americans will look to religion to help them cope with the massacre, as they have in dealing with past shocks like the September 11 attacks.
“The terrible scale of this forces people to go back to their souls,” said Stremlau in a telephone interview. Because the gunman was not motivated by religion, Stremlau said the nation might find it easier to unite.
“There is no sectarian aspect ... so we can seek solace in a common faith that there is still meaning out there.”
While most students at Virginia Tech are Christian, the Jewish community also mourned the loss of friends and a beloved professor, Israeli Holocaust survivor Liviu Libresco.
“They are not so much looking for answers or philosophical insight, they’re looking for a shoulder to cry on,” Rabbi Yossel Kranz said of the students he’s comforted. “That’s really what we need to do right now. We need to mourn.”