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One year after 33 die in Va. Tech shooting, Catholic students’ CD facilitates healing

BLACKSBURG, Va. (Arlington Catholic Herald) - By noon on April 16, 2007, Bryan Schamus, a member of the Newman Community at Virginia Tech, knew that at least 22 people had been killed on campus. He quickly gathered with other student leaders of the university’s Catholic campus ministry to figure out how to respond to the tragedy, which would later become known as the deadliest school shooting in U.S. history.

By the end of the day, 33 students and faculty, including the gunman, had died.

“We didn’t even know who had been killed yet,” Schamus said of the gathering. But the students wanted to respond, so they arranged a Mass of healing at the Newman Center that evening.

“The Mass was jam packed with maybe close to 200 people,” Schamus recalled. People of all faiths had gathered for mutual support, consolation and comfort in the midst of raw violence and despair. What participants found were uplifting, youthful voices singing about hope and love overcoming fear.

In the days and weeks ahead, the Newman musicians continued to transmit their message through songs such as “Be Not Afraid,” “You Are Mine” and “City of God.” For Schamus, and all those involved in the project, the year has been a journey of transformation culminating in the creation of a CD of those songs to be released April 16 in memory of the lives lost at Virginia Tech. Called “Voices of Hope,” the CD is a message of hope, faith and transformation.

“Instead of being victims, we’re witnesses of the real power of God that helps us to stand up, to walk and to live,” said Schamus, now a senior and director of the CD. “If there’s any community in the world that needs to be at the cross right now it’s us.

“But what we also know from Scripture is that God doesn’t let death win,” Schamus said. “Everyone has a choice: life or death. We choose life, and that’s what this CD is, choosing life and hope. So the whole Easter paschal message this year seems unbelievable to us. This is the message of Easter, and it’s very powerful to be living it.”

Father John Grace, Virginia Tech’s Catholic campus minister, couldn’t agree more.

“When I got here, I heard a lot of stories about what happened and the response of the Catholic community to that violence,” said Father Grace, whom the Richmond Diocese assigned to the campus shortly after the tragedy. “Over and over I heard from people their appreciation of the ability to gather together at Newman, and the meaningfulness and comfort people drew from the music at that gathering.”

Since the tragedy occurred in the midst of the Easter season, students chose appropriate songs that communicated love, hope and comfort.

“Given what they were facing, it was very, very powerful,” Father Grace said. “And as I listened to the songs, it struck me that this is an important piece of their journey, and I thought it would be significant for other people too.”

Help for healing

So Father Grace suggested that Schamus, music director for the Newman Community, record the songs. Undaunted, Schamus agreed, unaware that sharing their message beyond the Virginia Tech community appears to have been providential, and out of their control.

“At the time I didn’t realize what we were doing in terms of a Mass of healing,” said Schamus, whose family attends Christ the Redeemer Church in Sterling. “I never thought I’d be sitting here in a year still talking about these songs.”

But the synchronicity of events had begun. Two of the professional songwriters whose songs they were singing showed up on campus. One evening, Schamus sent an e-mail to songwriter David Kauffman, telling him they were singing his contemporary arrangement of Psalm 46, called “Be Still,” every night, and what an impact it was having. Kauffman, publisher of Good for the Soul Music, immediately overnighted 100 CDs to Schamus and asked if he could travel from his home in San Antonio, Texas, to lead them in a night of prayer and song.

Then David Haas, a well-known writer of Catholic hymns, who wrote three of the songs selected for the CD, came to Virginia Tech to perform a one-night concert. He invited Schamus to be his guest at his Music Ministry Alive summer conference in July.

Not surprisingly, when Schamus asked if he could record their music, the songwriters supported him 100 percent.

“The response was unbelievable,” Schamus said. “All three publishers (GIA publications, OCP, and Good for the Soul Music) of the 10 songs we recorded gave us royalties free, and they did it quickly and willingly and were excited to be a part of it.”

Long road

Despite the positive response, the CD didn’t come together quickly. Although they began in September, it was five months later before the recording become a reality.

One evening in late February, more than 30 volunteer musicians came together in the Virginia Tech music department’s recording studio in Blacksburg. They included undergraduate students such as Schamus’ sister Laura, a sophomore; graduate students; alumni such as Jeremy Miller, who volunteered to record and mix all 10 tracks; and professional musician Stephen Pishner, who composed at least one of the songs, “God Will Wipe the Tears,” and drove out from West Virginia to record with the students.

But the process of making the CD became a personal as well as communal journey.

“The very act of recording this music became a revisiting and re-feeling of the events of April 16,” Father Grace said. “Students grappled with the bigger issues of faith and the presence of God in the midst of tragedy. It brought the community together to understand that God is in the suffering of humanity as well.”

In reliving the experience, Schamus himself had to come to terms with the tragedy.

‘God moments’

“What I look at now is how we’ve all been given free will, we all make decisions,” Schamus said. “The ‘God moment’ comes afterwards when people rush in to help and to save others. For instance, I thought about what causes a rescue squad to keep pushing against a chained door to get through when they know there’s someone with a gun on the other side?

“And for us as a music ministry and as a Catholic group, we had free will in how we wanted to respond to this tragedy,” said Schamus, who plans to pursue a graduate degree in pastoral ministries. “We decided the answer is not to pretend it never happened but to take it head on.”

Even freshmen like Marie Volger, who was not yet a student at Virginia Tech at the time of the shootings, have experienced the impact.

“There’s such a strong purpose in this CD, and the idea that no pit is so deep that God is not deeper still is very appropriate,” said Volger, who plays piano on the CD and is a parishioner of Sacred Heart of Jesus Parish in Winchester. “There’s been a deep sense of healing. The end result for me is an affirmation of the sense of community here.”

The fact that these young people can articulate the message of their faith and God’s love so well does not escape their elders.

“It’s unusual that a 19-year-old’s voice can bring hope to a 55 year old, and yet I’m convinced of it happening,” said Father Grace. “The idea of gathering and being empowered was seen in the disciples of Jesus gathering in the upper room after His death. They gathered in fear and in a desire to come together, and they were empowered. We have to respect our humanity and our fears.”

Newman Community students had an opportunity to witness their faith in the midst of that fear when the shooting at Northern Illinois University occurred in February. While on a mission trip in Chicago during spring break, students visited the NIU campus to deliver their message of hope and love.

“So what has happened is that now students at Tech have moved from being victims to being instruments of communicating God’s love to others,” said Father Grace.

To get the CD

All donations received from the sale of CDs will help defray the cost of production, and support the Newman Community’s future service and mission trips. CDs will be available for purchase on campus and on-line beginning April 16 at or


Republished by Catholic Online with permission of the Arlington Catholic Herald , the official publication of the Diocese of Arlington, Va. (



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