Terror and the Modern College Student

Les Newsom  |  October 12, 2015

Imagine being hastily huddled into a small, corner library study room on campus. Your cell phone buzzes with campus alerts: ACTIVE SHOOTER REPORTED. TAKE COVER. A few brave fraternity guys work to pile furniture against the door to block an assault. "Is it enough?" you wonder.

There in the corner, all you hear are the whimpering sounds of panic in the stuffy little room, so, you…wait. Where is the shooter now? Does the administration know? Why don’t they give us quicker updates? You find it difficult to keep your mind going in a dark direction. What does it feel like to be shot? What will they say about me if this is my last day on Earth? Why can’t I get a signal to call my family?

This was the exact description given to me by students and ministry staff at a large university in the state where I work. Deeply disturbing images are painted with the clarity that only real horror can produce. In the listening, you hope the tragedy is minimized by its rarity, waiting for the day when the events of that terror are a distant memory.

But it keeps happening. Over and over again.

What happens when fear takes over in the mind of a college student? A friend once described to me what it was like when he lived through his first earthquake on a vacation to Southern California. “Your mind is powerfully unsettled when something which you have always assumed is as invariable as the ground... suddenly starts to move.” Campus tragedies have a similar effect.

Next time you buy an item at a store which says “Some Assembly Required” on the box, dump the box out at home prior to building and look at it. Makes no sense, does it? Students struck by campus tragedy can look at the most familiar of surroundings and have no earthly idea how to put it all together.

Have you ever looked over the edge of a tall building with no guardrails? If you can suppress the vertigo in the moment, you’re better than most. But have you ever returned home that evening, climbed into bed and remembered how precariously close you were to death? What if that feeling persisted?

A great, often unnamed, consequence of these tragedies is that many students report, some for the first time, a deep and powerful rage. Aggression always breeds more aggression and the results can multiply tragedy, defying efforts to contain it.

This is rarely brought out in media coverage but the prevailing sensation from so many of these victims is a creeping loneliness. Due in part to the loss of innocence in a young mind, but also in part because these events somehow close me off in a world of my own (fallen) imagination. Life is, er, weird there.

Campus ministers and staff are being called upon in ways in which we never have in recent history to respond well to these ever-increasingly common events. How do we respond to those who have been touched by them?

It is not enough just to express relief at a friend’s physical safety. The healing process for this kind of fear begins by trying to see the world through their eyes. This is NOT a natural instinct, however, due in large part to the fact that the world through their eyes can be a dark and fearful thing. Ministry here means walking in where angels fear to tread.

RUF ministers and staff do their greatest good in the midst of these tragedies when, having secured the bodily safety of their own staff and core leadership, they plan events simply to get God’s people in the same room with one another. Whether these are prayer vigils or simple living room gatherings in their homes, the comfort that comes from a hug and a conversation is more helpful than you think.

For so many college students, this is the first time that much of their youthful explanations for life are tried and found wanting. A childish worldview crumbles in times of tragedy. This may mean, among other things, that it is time to find a good counselor who will begin the process of rethinking what the events of my life have meant and how I can move forward with any semblance of emotional health.

Finally, Psalm 46 reminds God’s people that he is a refuge and strength, a very present help in times of trouble. Why? Because God lives in a city that, because he is in the midst of her, shall not be moved. When the life-quake of seemingly incessant news items about active shooters overwhelms us, we take comfort in the truth that even though “nations rage” and “kingdoms totter,” the “Lord of hosts is with us, the God of Jacob is our fortress."

In other words, Immanuel (God with us) has secured an unshakeable safe house for our inner life. Jesus has put legs, as it were, on God’s sovereignty. Yes, we will puzzle later over how God is still in control when evil flexes it muscles, but for now…we will rest in the knowledge that even if the “Earth gives way…we will not fear."