InterVarsity responding to traumatized students amidst mass shooting, wildfires

By November 14, 2018

USA (MNN) — A recent mass shooting at a country music bar and grill shook Thousand Oaks, California and claimed the lives of 12 people. Some students with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship were there when it happened.

We talked with Greg Jao, InterVarsity’s Director of External Relations. He says, “They were students from [California State University Channel Islands], so we know of seven or eight students who were there.”

This latest attack was the deadliest mass shooting since Parkland, Florida. The gunman was a former US Marine and his victims included a veteran sheriff’s deputy who responded to the crisis. 21 people were injured.

As InterVarsity gathered information and responded to traumatized students, the situation got even more complicated. “What happened a day or two after the shooting doubled down on the sense of trauma because the campus was closed due to the wildfires that were approaching campus. Because of that multiplicity of issues, InterVarsity’s response to campus crisis and to trauma takes on a number of different aspects.”

Processing Trauma on Campuses

California State University Channel Islands (Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, Jacknorris63 – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0:

Jao explains, “First, you begin with meeting people’s immediate physical needs. So there was an attempt to assess, were our students safe? Were they physically injured or not? And then, as the campus closed, do students have a place to live? So our local staff was calling friends, neighbors, people in communities further off [and asking], ‘I have a group of students. Could you house them until the campus reopens because they have nowhere to live right now?’”

InterVarsity is working with campus mental health professionals as well. For the ministry, responding to students’ spiritual needs is just as important as meeting emotional, mental, and physical ones.

Staff with InterVarsity have been available at Cal State Channel Islands if students need somebody to pray with.

“We also planned at Cal State Channel Islands a prayer walk around the campus the next day,” says Jao. “So that moves us from responsive prayer [and] praying our trauma to declaring — as you walk with one another and as you invite people to join you — that in the space of that trauma we still believe Jesus Christ is present.

“As we do that, we’re doing two things. One, we’re grounding students in the theological reality: this has been traumatic and Jesus is still here.

“And as they are praying, students are being attentive to how the Holy Spirit may be at work. As they pray for a dorm, often the Holy Spirit will say, ‘This is a student you should be going to talk to.’ ‘This is a way to minister here.’ So you are attentive and you begin to respond to that.”

Prayer: A Bare Minimum Response?

(Photo courtesy of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship)

It’s easy for people roll their eyes at prayer in response to a crisis. Even in a Facebook post that authorities believe was written by the shooter around the time of the attack, he said, “…the only thing you people do after these shootings is ‘hopes and prayers’.. or ‘keep you in my thoughts’… every time… and wonder why these keep happening…”

Jao asserts that prayer is far from the passive and lame reaction that some make it out to be.

“You can see on social media people mock ‘thoughts and prayers’ and I think they are wrong to do so. I think the most primal human thing to do in a period of national mourning or local trauma is to cry out to God.”

He also adds, “Prayer on the ground is absolutely crucial, particularly when you use it to give students an opportunity to give a voice before God — their fears and their hurts.

“It’s actually, as they pray, having a sense of ‘God leading me to do this’ and it moves them from being people who merely experience trauma to having some agency to engage.”

Long-Term Healing

As we pray and the Holy Spirit moves, we are moved to do more too as  Jesus Christ’s ambassadors to a hurting world.

“I do think…engaging the larger systems is helpful. A number of our staff noted around the hurricanes in Houston and Florida and later in South Carolina this year, inevitably it was the poorer communities without resources [and] without long-term infrastructure that were the most damaged and the students from those communities that were the most greatly impacted. So I do think structural engagement there is important.”

Jao says he sees churches and ministries respond to these long-term needs in profound ways. InterVarsity still sends student teams to New Orleans every year since Hurricane Katrina devastated the area 13 years ago.

“Local citizens in the area have said, ‘What has struck us is that the Christians are still here. Long after the government has pulled out, long after other non-government organizations have left, you keep coming back year-after-year over spring break projects to help rebuild our communities.’”

Where You Come In

For now, between the mass shooting and the wildfires consuming northern California, communities are still in immediate crisis.

(Photo courtesy of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship)

InterVarsity needs your help to continue responding in the name of Jesus.

“Because we believe the Great Commandment and the Great Commission go hand-in-hand…the ability to respond quickly to crises because the Church cares and is poised to act I think is an incredible testimony.”

If you would like to support InterVarsity’s ministry, click here.

Finally, Jao encourages, “Literally every news article is a crucial opportunity to learn to pray for people who would not normally come to mind.”

Please join InterVarsity in praying for the people hurt by the shooting and wildfires in California — including the deadly Camp Fire. Pray that they might sense God’s peace and find encouragement in the local Body of Christ.




Header photo courtesy of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship.

Leave a Reply