“On Wednesday, Jan. 8, we received vague news,” said Rick Mast, full-time Christian Reformed campus pastor at the University of Alberta, “that academic community members had died in the tragic crash of Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752. We did not know how many, but we knew that returning to Canada on that flight were two highly loved and esteemed Engineering professors and their two young children, and two newly wed graduate students and other students who had been a part of the wedding party. We soon learned that 10 of our campus community had perished.” Most, if not all, were also part of the city’s close-knit Iranian community.
“This is a devastating loss for the University of Alberta,” acknowledged David Turpin, the university's president in an online statement. “Ours is a closely interconnected community, and we grieve with everyone touched by this terrible loss.” He said flags on the university campus would be lowered to half-mast and counseling and other services were made available to the school community.
On Wednesday, all available supports, including chaplaincy services, were called to the Engineering department where Mast was asked to set up in a conference room to serve faculty, in particular.
“Those who came to meet me there spoke of disbelief, shock, and sorrow. I sometimes asked questions, but mostly listened to stories of almost unbearable lament, rich connections, and deep caring. Throughout, I offered God the same simple prayer: Lord God, don’t let me make this worse! That day I met with almost a dozen faculty and staff. The next day was even busier as students and their friends came to share their grief.” Mast said people came individually and in groups; the department provided refreshments for all. “Some (people) came specifically to support me.”
Thursday afternoon, as disturbing rumors about the cause of the crash began to emerge (by Saturday Iran acknowledged that the civilian plane had been unintentionally shot down), Mast attended an impromptu gathering/memorial in the Computing Science department. Mast said almost 200 people from the Iranian campus community attended. “Grief there was palpable.” On Friday—again in the Computing Science department, the academic home of one of the newlyweds—he met with a grad student who was close to the couple.
It was a profoundly sad week, said Mast. Noting that most of what he did was to listen, Mast said he was amazed and humbled by the feedback given from the chair of Engineering. “I want to sincerely thank you,” wrote the chairperson, “on behalf of our entire department for everything you did for us during our time of need. I have heard only praise for how caring and supportive you were with everyone who sat with you over the last couple days. Thank you.”
Referring to the support offered him during this time by the denomination, friends, and other individuals, Mast responded, “For such a time as this, in what have become very public forums, our efforts as chaplains at campuses across North America are enriched and made bearable and possible by the large community of support from behind the front lines. We covet, cherish, and need that assistance.”
The University of Alberta hosted a city-wide memorial for the victims of the crash Sunday Jan. 12. Mast was among the 2,300 attendees including the city’s mayor, Alberta’s premier, and Canada’s prime minister. Of the 176 people who died in the crash, 57 were Canadians.
Mast and 38 campus ministry teams across North America are supported by Resonate Global Mission, the CRC’s mission agency. The University of Alberta campus ministry is also supported by Classis Alberta North.
A prayer Mast shared in Alberta was posted on the CRC Network last week, noting the other campuses where the community experienced loss.