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Remembering 5th Anniversary of NIU Shooting

Posted: February 14 2013 at 12:00 AM
Author: Jamie Greco

Five years ago, on February 14, 2008, news came out of Northern Illinois University in DeKalb, Ill. that stunned not only the campus but the community, our church, the nation and the world. A former student slipped into a lecture hall and opened fire on 27 students, killing five and injuring 21 before turning the gun on himself. 

Ap Northern Illinois University Shooting Police Tape

(photo credit: AP Photo/Jim Killam, Northern Star, students are tended to outside of Cole Hall at Northern Illinois University Thursday, Feb. 14, 2008.)

Mayhem erupted and misinformation was rampant, according to then Senior Pastor of First United Methodist of DeKalb the Rev. Jane Eesley who now serves as Senior Pastor at Christ United Methodist in Rockford.

“We got word about it in the late afternoon,” she remembered. “There was some rumor that went around that there were two shooters; there was a fear that some other shooter was at large in the city, which was later unfounded. We immediately called our preschool in case there was a shooter at large. There was a lot of fear and confusion.”

Once the reality of the situation was clear, the Rev. Laura Crites then Associate Pastor at First United Methodist Church in DeKalb and NIU Campus Pastor Efrain Avila went to Kishwaukee Community Hospital, where many of the victims had been taken. “We were very impressed with how the Kishwaukee hospital handled it,” Crites recalled. “They opened their boardroom and got cookies and coffee and tea and called the clergy and asked if we could come in.”

Despite the best efforts of the hospital, there was much confusion and panic. Church representatives addressed issues in alignment with their abilities. Crites cited her unique background, which enabled her to address issues that might have otherwise gone unnoticed. “I had been a mental health counselor for several years and before that, I worked at a mental health crisis center where I worked with the police to talk people off of bridges and out of hostage situations, those kinds of things,” she said.


Volunteers from United Methodist churches throughout the DeKalb and Rockford districts knitted over a thousand prayer shawls which were passed out to people attending NIU’s first anniversary events.

As a result, Crites focused on the practical aspect of the situation, thereby easing anxiety for loved ones. “I assessed some of the problems that people had while some of the victims were being airlifted to trauma centers,” she recalled. “People who came racing in then had to find another hospital they never heard about. One of the things I ended up doing was running between parents and administration and finding out what hospital people were taken to.”

As Crites addressed the concrete aspects of the situation, others offered care according to individual needs.

“One of the people killed was Latina (Catalina Garcia) whose parents were struggling with English,” Eesley recalled. “Efrain translated for them and went with them to view the body of their daughter. He did a very powerful ministry and followed up with them to see how they were doing. There was a lot of being present, watching out for people, listening as people cried at the hospital,” Eesley said.

At the time, the Rev. Larry Hilkemann said in response, “Before the families of NIU students Daniel (Parmenter), Catalina (Garcia), Ryanne (Mace), Julianna (Gehant) (and) Gayle (Dubowski) ever got word that their sons and daughters died in that campus carnage at DeKalb, God cried the first tears.”

Time of Healing


Candlelight vigils were held, Sunday services changed gears, students returned and time went on, yet the effects of the trauma remained fresh. “You realized that it spread out to so many people; it was tragic and terrifying for the students, also terrifying for faculty and staff. We had many church members that were staff members there and Laura (Crites) sent out a group email to those people writing them words of comfort and hope,” Eesley said.

On the first anniversary of the tragedy, plans were made to commemorate the event. Some in the faith community wondered about the advisability of it. “The next year there were freshmen who came in, and they knew about it, but it wasn’t their story and then there were upperclassmen who desperately wanted to talk about it,” Eesley recalled “But there were those who didn’t want to talk about it and needed to handle it by moving on. It was a complex dilemma for many people.”

Eesley said volunteers from United Methodist churches throughout the DeKalb and Rockford districts knitted over a thousand prayer shawls which were passed out to people attending NIU’s first anniversary events.

“When people make prayer shawls, they pray for the recipient,” Eesley said “It was one of those wonderful ministry situations that was a gift all around. It helped people who wanted to help and didn’t know quite what to do and it meant so much to the people who received them.”

Remembering Fifth Anniversary

On February 14, 2013, memorial wreaths will be placed at a special garden next to the lecture hall, but little else is expected to be done to in remembrance. There is no doubt, however, that those who survived in the classroom, and the parents who received the heart-wrenching calls that shattered their world, will enact their own day of remembrance, whether silently or with loved ones.

Despite the horror brought about by continued gun violence, Crites believes God can bring about hope. “Nothing is so horrific that God can’t wrench a blessing from it. We’ve seen that in the way that NIU and other universities have really stepped up their preparedness,” she said.

Proliferation of Gun Violence  

There have been 38 deaths on school campuses and 59 injuries since February 14, 2008, including those at NIU and the most recent incident at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut on December 14, 2012. Once again, the nation shuddered when faced with the news that a gunman had entered the school’s first-grade class and murdered 12 girls, eight boys, and the six women staff members, after killing his mother at home.

The Sandy Hook shooting evoked many emotions for two retired pastors in the Illinois Great Rivmaceers Conference (IGRC) and caused them to relive a five-year-old nightmare all over again. The Rev. Miley Palmer and his wife Janet, along with the Reverends Gene and Sally Mace lost their granddaughter, Ryanne Mace in the NIU shooting.

Hs Mace Ryanne T

Ryanne Mace

“It has changed everything,” Palmer said, reflecting on the proliferation of gun violence in schools. “Every shooting hits us all over again and strengthens our sense of commitment to keep things from staying the same.”

Palmer’s daughter and Ryanne’s mother, Mary Kay Mace, echoes her father’s concern. “What infuriates me is that it keeps happening,” she said. “My daughter’s gone; that is over. But each shooting brings it up again and there is no place where you are immune to it.” Mace is in Washington, D.C. this week, testifying before Congress at the request of the Mayors Against Gun Violence organization.

Palmer joined with retired IGRC pastor Howard Daughenbaugh recently in penning a pastoral letter seeking to address the issue of gun violence. While raising some of the familiar issues associated with firearms, regulations, and restrictions, the letter also called upon the church to play a role in helping to provide places of conversation among the faith community, including dialogues about the violence-obsessed culture in our nation, gun safety, violence prevention. The letter was co-signed by Gene and Sally Mace.

“It would be inexcusable for our society and, most of all, for the church to remain silent on the issue of gun violence in our midst. To do nothing or to do anything that will further arm our society is unconscionable and unfaithful,” the letter said. “Following the course of silence or the path that further encourages the development of an armed society does not enhance public security; it only increases the possibility that further tragic events will happen among us.”

The letter offers a 12-point plan aimed at addressing the issue including:

  • Extending present laws to cover all gun purchases, particularly at unlicensed firearms sales venues such as gun shows – and subsequent re-sales of those weapons in future years.
  • Creating new laws to limit the sales of assault weapons, automatic weapons conversion kits, weapons that cannot be detected by metal-detection devices, and certain ammunition.
  • Bringing together mental health professionals, educators, and clergy, along with other appropriate groups, to initiate a national dialogue concerning the care of mentally and emotionally disturbed persons.
  • A dialogue about the violence-obsessed culture in our nation. Surely the excessive depiction of violence in our mass media (movies, TV, video games, etc.) has an impact on our children and youth.
  • Churches need to initiate dialogue within their own congregation and in their own community about gun safety, violence prevention, and what adults can do to help keep our children safe.
  • A call to pastors to take leadership in their teaching role to help the congregation and community enter a dialogue about a wide-spread ideology in our nation that peace and justice can only be secured by violence.

Palmer and Daughenbaugh add in the letter that many of these ideas are found in The Book of Resolutions of The United Methodist Church, 2008 edition, particularly on pp. 512-5 and 741.

“But, more than any resource we have in our Book of Discipline or Book of Resolutions is our heritage of faith formed by the scripture, tradition, reason, and experience. There we find the roots of our commitment to love of neighbor, actions forged in the furnace of justice, the pursuit of peace in the midst of violence, and the honoring of our children. Let us keep the conversation alive and the pursuit of creative answers progressing.”

*Jamie Greco is a freelance writer living in Elgin, Ill.
**Paul Black, IGCR Communications Director, contributed to this story.

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