Cover Story

Faith at gunpoint

By life and by death, powerful messages and images of faith emanated from Littleton and neighboring communities in the southwestern quadrant of Denver's suburbs last month. They were heard and seen around the world.

Issue: "Columbine: Teenage martyr," May 8, 1999

George Kirsten, pastor of the 1,400-member West Bowles Community Church in southwest suburban Denver, was on a kibbutz in Israel when word of the shootings at Columbine High School flashed on Israeli TV. Of the 200 high schoolers in his church's youth group, 40 attended Columbine. A telephone call informed him that one of them, Cassie Bernall, 17, was among the dead. All the others were safe.

Cassie was in the library with dozens of other terrified students, all seeking cover, when Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold strode in. One of them tossed a pipe bomb that sent books flying. Jocks would die, they announced. Then the killing began. Eyewitnesses heard one assailant taunt Cassie, asking if she believed in God. She hesitated momentarily, then said, "Yes, I believe."

"Why?" the killer demanded, then shot her in the face without giving her a chance to answer.

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Cassie would have had a good answer, her parents, pastors, and friends agree. "Cassie's life was rightly centered on Jesus Christ," Misty and Brad Bernall said in a statement.

It wasn't always that way. On ABC's 20/20 show, the Bernalls explained that Cassie began going down the wrong path in ninth grade. They took strong measures to rein her in. Two years ago, they allowed her to go on a weekend youth retreat with the kids from church. Youth pastor Dave McPherson and others got through to her; she committed herself to Christ. She returned a totally different person, they said. She told them she had changed and "I'll prove it to you."

The vivacious blonde teen became a leader and Bible teacher of the youth group. She helped out at a mission that works with drug addicts and prostitutes. She looked forward to pursuing a career in medicine.

More than 2,200 packed West Bowles (a congregation of the Evangelical Presbyterian Church) for her funeral on Monday. Like the families of other Christians who had been gunned down at Columbine, the Bernalls asked that the service be a celebration of life.

Along with pastors Kirsten, McPherson, and another minister who spoke, Cassie also had a part. Two days before she died, she and other teens at the church produced a video about their faith. It was shown on a huge screen during the service.

"I just try to not contradict myself, to get rid of all the hypocrisy and just live for Christ," she said.

They're calling her a martyr at her church, the girl who died for her faith.

At the April 25 community memorial service, Jonathan Cohen, 17, and his brother Stephen, 18, led with a song they helped to write. They are leaders of the 70-member Bible club at Columbine High and members of Living Way Fellowship. Associate Pastor Andy Millar wrote the words on Wednesday following the shooting; they added music and sang it for the first time that night in a church service:

"Columbine, friend of mine ... Do you still hear raging guns, ending dreams of precious ones? ... There's hope for you ... Peace will come to you in time."

Jonathan, a junior, was trapped in the choir room when the shooting started; Stephen, a senior, was in the cafeteria. Both escaped without harm.

The Sunday afternoon service was organized by Colorado Gov. Bill Owens and carried nationwide by CNN, MSNBC, and C-SPAN. Despite a chilly mist, the service attracted an estimated 70,000 to a shopping mall parking lot a few blocks from Columbine, named after the blue state flower.

Selected to speak on behalf of pastors in the area, Jerry Nelson, pastor of

the 2,000-member Southern Gables Church, an Evangelical Free Church congregation, summarized their appeal in two words: "Seek Jesus." He closed his two-minute talk by quoting John 3:16.

(The next morning his church was swamped with calls from people who identified themselves as Jewish. They said they were offended by the pastor's lack of sensitivity and inclusiveness.)

Billy Graham could not come; son Franklin delivered the sermon instead. He expressed "profound sorrow" at what had happened. "I don't know the answers," he said, "but I know God is in control." He urged his listeners to "trust Christ as Savior," to be like Cassie-"she was ready to meet Almighty God."

One of his remarks sparked applause by many in the crowd: "It is time for this nation to recognize that when we empty the public schools of the moral teachings and the standards of our holy God, they are indeed very dangerous places."

Although hundreds of reporters were on the scene, many daily newspapers omitted mention of this remark and the unusual applause. The local Rocky Mountain News and The Washington Post, which sent six reporters to Littleton, forgot to mention that Mr. Graham even spoke at all. Likewise, a comment elsewhere by Billy Graham received little notice: "The problem is not guns, but the hearts of people that need to be changed."


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