Voices: IOCC Frontline Clergy at Virginia Tech

Baltimore, MD (May 9, 2007) — Three IOCC “Frontline” clergy recently related their experience of delivering trauma and grief counseling at Virginia Tech University during the first week that students returned to classes. In cooperation with its sister SCOBA agency, Orthodox Christian Fellowship (OCF), IOCC activated its Emergency Response Network of clergy to offer grief and trauma counseling for the OCF Virginia Tech chapter, and to any students who sought their support. The clergy who were sent to Virginia Tech included Father Deacon Raphael Barberg of St. George Antiochian Orthodox Church in Niagara Falls, NY, a career police officer who served as an IOCC “Frontliner” on 9/11; Father Peter Preble, of St. Michael’s Romanian Orthodox Church in Southbridge, MA, who also serves as the OCF chaplain at Harvard University; and Father Angelo Pappas, of St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church in Portsmouth, NH, a fire and police chaplain and a disaster response team leader in his state. This interview is part of IOCC’s year long presentation of “Voices” of supporters, partners and beneficiaries of IOCC as the organization celebrates its 15th Anniversary.

IOCC: Tell us how you got yourselves organized on the first day that students returned to classes at Virginia Tech campus.

Dn. Barberg: We arrived on campus on Monday afternoon and met over dinner to get a game plan together. When Bishop Thomas [of the Antiochian Archdiocese] came on Tuesday, we had our first meeting with the OCF students at the drill field [the main area of the campus] where people were being memorialized. We did the trisagion prayers for the departed. We did it very simply and as low key as possible. We wore our clerical collars. We didn’t want the attention to be on us. We then proceeded to a room and there we did more prayers and the bishop vested. After that we held a Critical Incident Stress Debriefing.

IOCC: What is Critical Incident Stress Debriefing and how did it facilitate your work at Virginia Tech?

Dn. Barberg: Critical Incident Stress Debriefing is a tool to use when people have been through any kind of trauma. It is done in a group setting and gives people a chance to say how they feel and hear what others have gone through. It is often used as an assessment tool.

Fr. Preble: We listen to their story and see where they are and see their body language. It’s usually done in the first 24 – 48 hours after the incident. The idea is to get people to tell the story as much as they can and that that process will help them to recover. About 15 students participated in the one we held. It was probably our biggest contribution. Our role is short term not long term, and we pass that assessment to the two priests who are there all the time working with the students.

IOCC: Tell us how students reacted to your presence on campus as clergy.

Fr. Pappas: Some students told us that they were tired of seeing police uniforms and that they were comforted to see clerical shirts. The most important thing was to be there and to have a presence on campus and to listen. I had taken a course in grief counseling. You don’t go there to try and preach, but to listen. If you do that your presence will be more powerful.

Fr. Preble: We met with a lot of students who just wanted to talk. Over the course of the week, each of us saw between 20-30 students on a one-on-one basis. You look for those who need some follow up based on their body language and how they speak. This is something we definitely need to get more people trained to do at the seminary level.

IOCC: Tell us about the OCF chapter at Virginia Tech.

Dn. Barberg: Not to diminish the suffering these kids are going through — and some were very affected by this tragedy–but the joy and the unity of this group is a great model for OCF. It’s a new group and had not been around very long, but by God’s providence, they came together in time for this great tragedy.

Fr. Preble: It’s a very dynamic group of about 30 students. The leader is a sophomore, a young woman who has worked hard this last year to really organize the chapter. They have really come together to support each other as the rest of the community has come together.

IOCC: What would you say is the value of IOCC’s Emergency Response program?

Dn. Barberg: There were individual memorials for each person; not just 32 memorials but 33 — even for Cho. There was a poster which all of us claimed as a rallying cry: “32 are gone because one was lost.” This young man was one of us who did this. We look at the (video) images, the human emotions of fear and anger but we have to see this as a troubled man whom God made in his image. We don’t know the issues that the person next to us is going through. If we don’t reach out to them, we don’t know what kind of trouble will follow us.

Fr. Pappas: It’s important for our students to know that just because they are away from home doesn’t mean the Orthodox Church doesn’t care for them. The most important thing is how well we worked together. Father Peter and I had worked together in Katrina. We knew each other and we were able to get things done. You are with fellow clergy now almost 24 hours a day. We are here as Orthodox — as brothers — not as jurisdictions. Truly Jesus Christ was among us in this tragedy.

International Orthodox Christian Charities (IOCC) was founded in 1992 as the official humanitarian aid agency of the Standing Conference of Canonical Orthodox Bishops in the Americas (SCOBA). Since then, it has implemented over $250 million in relief and development programs in 33 countries around the world.

Orthodox Christian Fellowship (OCF) is the official campus ministry program of the Standing Conference of Canonical Orthodox Bishops in the Americas (SCOBA). OCF works to nurture and strengthen love for Jesus Christ and His Church in its fullness at this most critical juncture of human life. OCF supports 240 local chapters throughout North America and involves hundreds of college students through its programming, including the College Conference and Real Break. Additional information on OCF can be found at www.ocf.net, or by calling 800-919-1623.