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‘Light shines in darkness:’ Churches help UNC students process campus shooting

UNC-Chapel Hill Chief of Police Brian James consoles students who had spent hours on lockdown during an active shooter situation on campus, Monday, Aug. 28, 2023, at The Carolina Inn in Chapel Hill, N.C. (AP Photo/Hannah Schoenbaum)

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – Following a shooting inside a lab building at the University of North Carolina that left a faculty member dead, local churches have covered the campus in prayer while providing places for students to process the tragic events.

An emergency alert issued shortly after 1 p.m. on Monday, Aug. 28, put the campus on a three-hour lockdown while authorities searched for a suspected gunman following reports of shots fired at Caudill Labs in the heart of the UNC campus.

Police later arrested a 34-year-old graduate student from China who was later identified as Tailei Qi in connection with the incident in a residential neighborhood near the university.

On Tuesday, Qi was charged with first-degree murder in the shooting death of Zijie Yan, an associate professor in UNC’s Department of Applied Sciences, who was also Qi’s academic advisor. Qi was also charged with having a gun on educational property.

Qi is being held without bail, and authorities haven’t provided a motive in the case.

University officials canceled classes on Tuesday and local churches and parachurch ministries provided places for students to pray and process the tragic events of the day before.

Lawrence Yoo, lead pastor of Waypoint Church in Chapel Hill, partnered with several parachurch campus ministries to host a special event for students on Tuesday that provided prayer, counseling and support for students. The event drew approximately 60 students, who expressed an array of emotions.

Yoo described the event as a time of “processing and praying.”

Brian Pell, pastor of Vintage Church of Chapel Hill and Carrboro, said members of his church spread throughout the community Monday afternoon and evening after the campus lockdown was lifted. Pell spent much of Tuesday talking and praying with students. 

“My conversations with students have been moving,” Pell said. “Most of them have expressed confusion and frustration paired with sadness and exhaustion. There’s a weariness and hesitancy that comes up quickly. And, there’s plenty of pain.”

Pell said he and his congregations will continue to prioritize connecting with students in the days ahead.

Josh Ferguson, a college pastor for UNC with The Summit Church, said church staff and students began earnestly praying for the university community as news of the shooting first spread. With the campus on lockdown, church leaders communicated and shared prayer prompts through text message threads and messaging apps.

“It was really amazing to see the family of God rally at that moment and cover the campus with prayer, truth and encouragement,” Ferguson said.

Ferguson said The Summit Church was planning to host a special worship and prayer service Tuesday night around the theme of “Light Shines in Darkness” based on John 1:5. Ferguson said the service’s goal is to minister to students and help them process the recent events.

“We acknowledge the reality that there is darkness, but there is also the light of Jesus that offers hope,” Ferguson said. “That’s the unique perspective of the Christian in times like this. There is light, even when things seem really dark.”

With classes canceled on Tuesday, Ferguson said leaders and families from The Summit hosted students in their homes throughout the day, providing meals, prayer and support.

During Monday’s lockdown, Marshall Landry, a senior at UNC who’s active in The Summit’s college ministry, found himself in a room with about 15 other students in the university’s student union when he asked the room if they wanted to pray.

“I wasn’t sure about the response I was going to get,” Landry said. “But everyone’s eyes got big, and they all said, ‘Yes.’”

After leading in a brief time of prayer, Landry said some of the students thanked him and told him his prayer brought them comfort and peace.

Shortly afterward, Landry began texting with friends and helped organize a time of prayer Monday night at a campus quad adjacent to the building where the shooting took place earlier in the day. Landry estimates the event drew about 80 students from all segments of the campus community.

The prayer service also caught the attention of a local news reporter. Julian Grace, a reporter with WRAL-TV in Raleigh, mentioned observing the evening prayer time on campus during a live shot during the station’s news broadcast Monday night.

“I took a couple of snapshots; I didn’t want to interrupt them,” Grace said. “After I took those pictures, I walked away to prepare for our live shot tonight. About six students later came over to me and they said, ‘Hey, we just want to pray for you.’ They prayed for me and afterward, they said their goal is to spread hope.”