Photo: Mercy Medical Center in Roseburg, Ore., was the receiving hospital for victims of the Oct. 1 shooting at Umpqua Community College. Photo provided.
October 1 will live on in the minds of many Roseburg, Ore., residents, including Byron Gingrich, a Mennonite chaplain at Mercy Medical Center in Roseburg. At 10:38 a.m., the first 911 call came in reporting that a 26-year-old student opened fire in a classroom at Umpqua Community College (UCC) near Roseburg. The shooting eventually claimed the lives of nine people and injured nine others. Gingrich was one of six chaplains on call when victims and families began arriving at the hospital.
“I was at the hospital when they announced that a shooting had taken place. We had very little information at the time,” said Gingrich in an Oct. 6 phone interview. “But I work with a great team, and we all worked together in different areas involved in the emergency care.”
Together the chaplains worked to provide support and hospitality to families waiting for news about loved ones on-site at UCC during the shooting. Although privacy laws prevent chaplains from sharing health information, chaplains worked to connect families to doctors and to other family members on-site at the hospital. The team prayed with and provided spiritual support for families as requested.
Gingrich, who attends both Albany (Ore.) Mennonite Church and Portland Mennonite Church, accompanied two families whose children were killed in the shooting. Because several individuals came to the hospital without identification, hospital staff and chaplains weren’t able to offer families reassurance or information about the status of their children until later in the day.
“This was an intense and anxious time for these families,” said Gingrich. “I tried to put myself in the shoes of these two families who could not locate their children. They clearly felt angst and frustration and hopelessness when they couldn’t get any information. Of course, you find yourself wishing you were able to do more.”
The hospital hosted families until they were reunited with their loved ones or were transferred to the Douglas County fairgrounds, where they were given information about individuals who were missing or had been fatally wounded. Chaplains accompanied the families from 10:45 a.m. through 4 p.m.
Memories of the shooting still loom large for Gingrich and patients at the hospital.
“I don’t think I’ve met with anyone this week that hasn’t at least brought the issue up,” said Gingrich. “Roseburg is a small community, so a lot of these kids went to high school with each other and then moved on to the community college. It remains on the minds of people here.”
This is not Gingrich’s first experience with emergency spiritual care. In 1999, he was part of a team of chaplains sent to Rhode Island to care for families after EgyptAir flight 990 crashed into the Atlantic Ocean, killing all 217 passengers onboard.
Both experiences have solidified Gingrich’s call to chaplaincy and his belief that spiritual care in the midst of tragedy is vital.
“I have found that even people who claim not to be religious find value in faith when there is a tragedy,” Gingrich said. “People look to sources they may not have considered when something is beyond their control and they are facing hard times. And I have been honored to be invited into the lives of strangers and to then be able to encourage them in a hopeful way to look at alternatives that may be helpful for their spiritual journey.”
Gingrich is a graduate of Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary in Elkhart, Ind., and completed his clinical pastoral education at Emmanuel Medical Center in Portland. He credits his Mennonite faith with providing an open framework that allows him to walk alongside people from a variety of traditions and includes a strong peace witness.
“In this role, you find people at lots of different places on spiritual journeys,” said Gingrich. “I’m grateful for a tradition that is open and accepting of other traditions and faith communities. And I’m grateful to be a part of a peace tradition that is trying to find ways to resolve or to hopefully mitigate and reduce some of the violence that seems to have been taken to a new level in our society.”