Bishop’s Mantle column by Jim Bishop
Only a few torturous hours had passed, and already news reporters were asking administrators, “So, what will you do to tighten security on campus?”
The setting for this query, of course, was Virginia Tech in the wake of the multiple fatal shootings. Such questions were fair to ask, just not so soon, as so many other issues and concerns first needed to be addressed.
(In fact, I fielded similar media queries here at Eastern Mennonite University, three hours driving distance from Blacksburg, later the same day).
The mind-boggling news accounts and images of that early-morning debacle at Virginia Tech continue to haunt me. Not just because of the unbelievable horror of what happened, but also because I move about on a much smaller university campus and recognize that something similar could happen here, heaven forbid.
The nature of a higher-education enterprise like EMU is that we are an open community, engaged in a quest for knowledge and fresh discoveries in classrooms and laboratories, and continually invite others to join in that learning adventure. Visitors and prospective students alike frequently comment about our friendly, accessible campus. It’s a quality that we certainly want to maintain.
But be assured, our security measures and crisis-management plan are being reviewed to see what can be improved.
The question remains: What does it mean to feel secure in a world that appears increasingly unsafe, more fearful and violent?
Call me idealistic or impractical, but I believe that genuine security has more to do with a state of mind than the number of locked doors, wire fences or guards stationed at checkpoints at my disposal. It’s sensing that a presence greater than myself hovers over me, guides my steps, warns of clear and present danger if I’m quiet enough to listen.
I’m in good hands, and it’s not because of Allstate, thank you very much.
Nonetheless, because we’re human, things will happen that we’d prefer not to occur – accidents, illness, emotional or physical abuse – most such occurrences will make little sense to us this side of eternity. These and other questions we’ll need to ask God in the life to come, and maybe we won’t even have to pose, as answers will be revealed through some unimaginable heavenly PowerPoint.
I’m not advocating a certain naivety, a que sera sera approach to life. I take safety precautions, wear seat belts, lock doors after me and expect appropriate security to be in place at large public gatherings. At the same time, I believe that few people out there need to possess semi-automatic weapons.
The question that surfaces for me in the aftermath of the Virginia Tech and the Bluffton (Ohio) University bus accident a month earlier: Why can’t we be as supportive of each other, individually and corporately, in ordinary times and places before a crisis occurs?
Living and acting this way won’t make dealing with a tragic event that much easier, but there would be a stronger network already in place for reaching out amid the difficulty.
On a newscast some time after the shootings, the host was decrying the fact that when he was growing up, people on his block “looked out for each other. If one of us did something wrong outside the home, my parents would hear about it immediately and I’d have to answer to them.”
“This doesn’t happen anymore,” he maintained.
I disagree. We may have lost some of that close-knit, extended family feel because of our hectic schedules and other factors, but it needn’t be that way. For many years, my wife and I have been part of small groups that are a basic component of congregational life. We gather regularly for mutual support, open discussion and prayer. We have a level of trust to the point that we can say anything and it will stay within the circle. It’s a precious commodity that we don’t take for granted.
If more people could experience this level of community and accountability, I wonder how many horrible events that are reported in the media daily could be averted. Had Seung-Hui Cho received that kind of support, might that have prevented his taking such drastic measures? I wonder.
I don’t believe that stockpiling weapons, building walls around cities or borders, escalating troops and reducing citizens’ civil liberties will give us more security. Rather, it will come about by the sheer hard work of removing walls of fear and mistrust and opening up clear lines of communication.
Reaching out in the darkness, as individuals and in larger groups, is the first step and the only way to ignite the sorely-needed flame of compassion and understanding.
Jim Bishop is the public-information officer at Eastern Mennonite University.