Illinois UM Church Remembers Campus Shooting Victim

April 18, 2007

A UMNS Report by Linda Bloom*


Austin Cloyd was raised as a child of faith, taught by her family that she was blessed and needed to pass on that blessing to others.


That faith was evident to the Rev. Terry Harter, senior pastor of First United Methodist Church in Champaign, IL, and others in the congregation where she was actively involved for six years.


Cloyd was one of the 32 victims of Cho Seung-Hui, a disturbed student who went on a shooting rampage April 16 at Virginia Tech University in Blacksburg, Va., before killing himself. She was a freshman majoring in international studies and would have been 19 years old on April 24.


Her family -- including her parents, C. Bryan and Renee Cloyd, and her brother, Andrew, a high school student -- had moved in 2005 to Blacksburg, where her father is a Virginia Tech accounting professor and the editor of the Journal of the American Taxation Association.


"I've talked with Bryan and Renee a couple of times in the last few days," Harter told United Methodist News Service in an April 18 interview. "They're extremely upset and distraught."


The Cloyds joined the Champaign congregation in 1999 when Mr. Cloyd joined the faculty at the University of Illinois. Mrs. Cloyd immediately became an active church volunteer and served a few years as director of youth ministries and a year as Harter's administrative assistant.


Harter remembered how Austin Cloyd, a redhead with a big smile, lit up a room. She was humble, but not shy, with a good sense of humor. And she was tall enough for Harter, at 6-foot-1, to look her straight in the eye.


Harter's wife, Martha, served as Austin's mentor for confirmation and spent a lot of time with her, particularly in eighth grade. "She and I really hit it off," she recalled. "We met weekly."


She remembered Austin as a loving, well-rounded girl who liked sports, movies and friends. Austin was an avid reader and good student with a strong work ethic, and she handled the fact that she was taller than most of the kids in school with grace.


"She wasn't one of those persons who had to be out front, but, boy, if she wasn't there, you'd miss her," Mrs. Harter said.


Austin and her mother joined others from the congregation for an Appalachian Service Project, where they helped build an addition for a house.


"It's amazing how different life is in Appalachia, how important family is, and how the land is cherished," Austin wrote in a brief report about her experience. "The family my group worked with consisted of grandparents who were caring for their five grandchildren, the oldest of which was about to turn 12 years old."


She enjoyed the friendliness of the children and the grandparents and was impressed by their overall hospitality. "At the end of the week, the grandfather thanked us and told us that he was going to make a sign that says 'House that Love Built' and put it up on the addition," she wrote. "But we figured that there was already so much love within their home, we just helped put more walls around it."


Rev. Harter said the Appalachian Service Project made such a lasting impression that Austin and her mother began a project with a local agency to rehabilitate houses in the Champaign-Urbana area. "We still continue that," he added.


First United Methodist Church hosted a brief prayer service in Austin's memory on the evening of April 17. Despite the late notice, about 125 people attended. Many came from the University of Illinois and some had been classmates from Centennial High, where she had played on the basketball and volleyball teams.


*Bloom is a United Methodist News Service news writer based in New York.