I suppose it is fitting that my last service at the Virginia Theological Seminary chapel was the Thursday evening prayer and praise service; it was, after all, the Thursday evening service that solidified my understanding that I belonged at VTS. When I toured VTS two years ago I arrived on a Thursday afternoon. After a nightmare-ish cab ride and wandering around lost for several hours a helpful student pointed me in the direction of the welcome center and there I learned that there would be a prayer service in the chapel at 5:30. We sat together in the choir on the raised chancel and sang songs led by some students with guitars and banjoes. I was asked to read a lesson and after the service the students brought me to the refectory. In my first few hours on campus I was afraid I had made a terrible mistake coming to visit VTS, but when I sat in that chapel looking at the stained glass window of Jesus at Gethsemane and heard familiar songs on the guitars I felt at home.
Our chapel got a hard rap. Some people didn’t think the chapel at the seminary was aesthetically pleasing. There were four different colors of stained wood, the windows didn’t match in color or style, it was not a moveable space and it looked like it was designed for a high church crowd when we are decidedly broad church, if not low. But I thought it was beautiful. Oh sure, I went along when we dreamed of ways of improving it, but at the end of the day… I hate change and I really liked it just as it was. It was at least comfortable… homey. Last fall when I was having a tough week I was walking out of the chapel and I saw a prayer stone left on the lip of one of the stained glass windows. It had been there for months, since the FTE conference that met there in July, and seeing that stone on that day reminded me that God was right there with me. The prayer stone remained on the window sill all year long. No one ever moved it. There were a couple nights last year when I went to the chapel in the middle of the night just to sit and be still with God.
Today I stood out on the lawn in the grove as we watched the chapel burn. White smoke was barreling out of the roof, I was one of the first to spot it and call 911. It was too late. I listened as the slate tiles on the roof popped and cracked. I watched as the orange flames broke through the roof. I cried with my classmates and the staff as we helplessly watched the stained glass windows shatter and the roof fall away. I looked on in horror as a place I loved so much went away.
But I did something else too, something besides simply watching: I prayed. In the midst of it all I felt a classmate grab my hand and I looked over as students, teachers and staff all joined hands. Then, Ginny -the middler class president and all around classy lady- started the Lord’s Prayer. We prayed. I prayed for the firefighters who worked hard to ensure that the other buildings were safe. I prayed for the alums who couldn’t be there with us. I thanked God that no one was inside and no one was injured.
I am on a plane on my way home for a week. It hurt my heart to walk away from school today -to turn my back on the people I love as they stayed and watched and cried. But it is where I am supposed to be. I heard that they held a prayer service in Scott Lounge at 5:00 while I was waiting at my gate. I prayed too. I called my friends who went to VTS in the past. Peter was at his diocesan convention and he texted me to let me know that the Diocese of Western Massachusetts was praying for us. Mostly, I was in shock because as much as I prayed and as much as I talked it hurts. I am grieving. I am sad that I will never walk into that chapel again.
Last night at the Thursday evening Prayer and Praise service we sang my favorite song. Caleb and Ginny played guitars. I read the OT lesson from Ezra. I arrived at the service early because I was having a stressful day and I wanted to sit and be still with God. God met me there and I left feeling revived and thankful. I am going to miss the VTS chapel. I will miss hearing Charlie Price’s piano and the beautiful music that people make on it. I will miss the Gethsemane window that I used to sit and study. I will miss the mission window with the man riding the donkey into the village. I will miss my seat in one of the back pews on the right against the pillar. And, of course, I will miss the six toed Jesus. (Yes, I said six toed Jesus.) But most of all I will miss the quote on the east wall that everyone jokes is preached about too often: “Go ye into all the world and preach the Gospel.” It was a daily reminder of my call.
In spite of all that I will miss, though, I know that it is only the building that is gone; because the chapel is really a combination of the talents and hearts of those who worship there. We loved that building but as my classmate Jennifer said, “It’s okay, the Holy Spirit is out here with us.” Our hearts, our songs, our words, our prayers: we are VTS.