Shocked congregation grateful for help

Shocked congregation grateful for help

UUs reach out to Blacksburg church reeling from Virginia Tech massacre; campus also site of UU summer conference.

Donald E. Skinner


Everyone in Blacksburg, Va., felt the shock of last Monday’s mass murder at Virginia Tech, which left 33 people dead. No members of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Blacksburg or their relatives were injured in the shootings, but 35 members of the 168-member congregation work on campus or attend classes at the university. Some lost colleagues and students.

“There’s probably not more than two degrees of separation between most of the people and the university,” said the Rev. Jeanne Pupke, minister of the First UU Church of Richmond, Va. The campus is also the frequent site of the Southeast UU Summer Institute, a regional gathering of hundreds of UUs, so the personal connections to the campus extend to several thousand Unitarian Universalists.

Pupke drove the three-and-a-half hours to Blacksburg Monday as soon as she heard about the shootings because she knew that the Blacksburg congregation’s minister, the Rev. Christine Brownlie, was away on sabbatical.

Annette Marquis, the district executive for the Unitarian Universalist Association’s Thomas Jefferson District, also made her way there.

Together they helped congregational leaders decide what needed to be done to minister to a congregation in shock. They organized a vespers service at the church Monday night and another one Wednesday night. They also met with individual members of the congregation and with its pastoral care team.

“People needed to sit in a room together and just be present to each other,” Pupke said about the vespers services. “There was no sense to be made of this tragedy, but what we could do was to be with each other.”

With the help of Pupke and Marquis, church leaders called every member of the congregation to check on them.

Pupke joined ministers of other faiths in responding to a call from the university Monday for the creation of a temporary chapel on campus. Pupke took charge and spent most of Tuesday there. “We welcomed a lot of students and others who just wanted a quiet place to pray or meditate or just needed to escape the news media.”

Two members of the Unitarian Universalist Trauma Response Ministry, the Rev. Susan Suchocki Brown and the Rev. Florence Gelo, also went to Blacksburg to help support the congregation.

Marquis said several UU ministers and religious educators will be at the church on Sunday to help support the congregation’s adults and children.

Word of the tragedy also resonated among thousands of UUs who have attended the annual Southeast UU Summer Institute. Since 1990 SUUSI has met frequently at Virginia Tech, making the campus familiar to many UUs. SUUSI attracts about a thousand people annually and is among the largest annual Unitarian Universalist gatherings.

“The campus is such a beautiful setting with the Appalachian Mountains all around,” said Valerie Putney, a member of the UU Church of Greensboro in Jamestown, N.C., and a SUUSI leader. “It’s so serene and tranquil with its stately stone buildings. It’s hard to think of something so horrible happening there.”

Pupke said it was an easy decision for her to drive to Blacksburg, despite the distance: “I kept thinking of something that the Rev. Joel Miller said at the General Assembly following the school shootings at Columbine High in Littleton, Colorado. He said what heartened him most was when a nearby colleague just drove in and said, ‘I’ll take care of things. You do what you have to do.’” Two students killed 12 fellow students and a teacher and wounded 24 others before killing themselves at Columbine on April 20, 1999, eight years ago this week.

“This is a strong, well-led congregation,” Pupke said about Blacksburg. “They are caring for each other. What other UUs and congregations can do is send words of support. They are collecting emails and posting them in the lobby.”

Frank and Marilyn DuPont are copresidents of the congregation. “The help from others, including the district and the UUA, has just carried us along,” Frank said. “Our congregation is richly blessed with talent, but this kind of event takes so much energy. To have Jeanne [Pupke] and Annette [Marquis] just drive in to help, and the others, is just overwhelming.”

They remember special moments from the past several days: the UU student who asked to bring a group of friends to the congregation Tuesday just to have a quiet place to be; the visit that Marquis made to a congregant’s friend, whose wife had been killed; the Wednesday night vespers service that was attended by 60 people.

One moment stands out, said Marilyn: “We got a call from Barry Bloom, the minister at Littleton. He gave us a lovely message that we’ll read on Sunday. And he told us they had ordered a dogwood to be planted on our property. The nursery called today and asked when we wanted it.”

And if other UUs want to help? “It’s just been wonderful to get emails of support,” said Marilyn. “We don’t really need material goods, but just hearing from the wider UU community helps so much. That’s what we need now.”

The congregation can be reached at or UU Congregation, PO Box 10116, Blacksburg, VA 24062-0116.

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Corrections 04.25.07: The original version of this story incorrectly named the Blacksburg minister Helen Brownlie. She goes by Christine. The SUUSI conference started to meet in Blacksburg in 1990, not 1975 as originally reported. We originally reported that SUUSI participants have been housed in Ambler Johnston Hall, where the first shooting deaths took place, but Devin Gordon, SUUSI director, informed us that only workshops have been held in the hall.