I was traveling when the school massacre occurred in Littleton, Colorado, just half an hour from my home. Watching the familiar landscape on television from 1,500 miles away, I felt helpless and disconnected. When I returned a few days later, I found that nothing else mattered in Colorado. People watched the news nonstop, sat through every single funeral on CNN, turned out in droves for the memorial service led by Franklin Graham, and day after day filed past the "shrine" in a park beside Columbine High. Probably every preacher within a hundred miles of Denver talked about the tragedy that Sunday: people would listen to nothing else.
My own church considered canceling youth group after the shootings, but the kids insisted they needed church more than ever. Instead, the youth pastor invited all ages to a Wednesday service, and word spread spontaneously so fast—no one knows how—that most of the congregation turned out. Mainly people cried and prayed, which seemed the most appropriate response.
I visited Clement Park, the impromptu shrine, a week after the killings. The media had been reporting on "cross wars." Shortly after an Illinois contractor constructed 15 crosses on the site, some people started writing slogans of hate and vengeance on the crosses memorializing the two gunmen. "Evil bastards!" one woman wrote, even as Columbine students pled with her not to do so. Did anyone present realize the irony of "defacing" the Roman empire's ultimate symbol of shame? Perhaps—the teenagers broke out in a soft, a cappella rendition of "Amazing Grace." The next day, though, one of the victim's parents destroyed the killers' crosses.
I climbed the hill, by now shorn of vegetation and slippery with mud. I was unprepared for the personal nature of what the mourners had left behind. I picked up a letter written on blue-lined school paper from a teenage girl in Vermont. "Eric, why didn't you reach out?" she demanded. "I am so angry with you! I too am an outcast, but I didn't kill anyone. I would have been your friend." In eight pages, she poured out her complete life story to the dead teenager. I reached for another letter, this one addressed to a 15-year-old victim who had run for Columbine's cross-country team. The writer, also a runner, reviewed every race he had run, gave his times, and then left two pairs of ASICS shoes that he had worn in races up Pike's Peak.
Letters like these, along with cards, Bible verses, and messages of sympathy, lay amidst thousands of flower bouquets, teddy bears, stuffed tigers, and balloons in the shape of monarch butterflies.
A Scottish preacher in the last century who had lost his wife delivered an unusually personal sermon just after her death. In the message, he admitted that he did not understand this life. But still less could he understand how people facing loss could abandon the faith. "Abandon it for what!" he cried. "You people in the sunshine may believe the faith, but we in the shadow must believe it. We have nothing else."
"Lord, to whom shall we go?" asked the apostle Peter in a moment of confusion. For many, it takes the jolt of tragedy to provoke the question. It happened in England two years ago after the sudden death of a beautiful princess, and it happened in Littleton, Colorado, a few months ago as well.
Ministers, parents, school administrators, and everyone touched by the event still ask "Why?" and no one has an answer. The element of evil looms so large in this tragedy that no one publicly links God to the event. Some ask why God does not intervene at such a time, but no one suggests God caused that outbreak of violence.
You would have to live in Colorado to appreciate the answer to the other question posed by the tragedy: Can any good come out of such horror? Can it be redeemed? You would have to visit Clement Park and read for yourself the handwritten notes from all over the world. You would have to attend the churches that filled with grieving worshipers the days and weeks following the event. You would have to hear Cassie Bernall's friends describe her bravery as a gunman pointed his weapon at her head and demanded, "Do you believe in God?" Yes, she replied; "and you need to follow along God's path," her last words on earth. You would have to listen to the girlfriend of another victim, who said, with the innocence of hope and the hope of innocence, "I take great comfort knowing I will see him again." You would have to attend a fifth-grade classroom in a public school where a teacher had her students kneel on the floor, hold hands, and pray aloud. (The ACLU was keeping a low profile.) In other Denver schools, teachers apologized to their classes for not having identified themselves as Christians and invited students to meet them after school to help process the tragedy.
Out of evil, good may come.
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