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.
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."
On the day of the shootings, many pastors and other church staff members rushed to the elementary school and community library where many students were taken to await reunion with parents. They helped with counseling and keeping order. Many churches opened their doors for prayer and refuge that night and all day for the rest of the week. Some churches reported hundreds showed up that Tuesday night and more than 1,000 the next day. Mostly it was a matter of listening as teens spoke with each other, youth workers said. By the weekend, organized rallies were taking place at some churches. Many pastors and staff members were exhausted.
A day after the rampage, the county began sending mental health workers to the churches to be available for counseling. "Frankly," one pastor confided to WORLD, "some of those people needed help, and our kids ended up counseling them."
Some of the pastors said that Sunday was "a repeat of Easter"-full houses. Southern Gables saw its Sunday morning attendance increase by 300, associate pastor Jim Kimbriel said. "Throughout the community," he added, "we're hearing a lot about God right now."
Meanwhile, television viewers who were following the Littleton coverage also were hearing a lot about God. CNN and MSNBC set up mini-studios near the school parking lot and shuttled students, parents, pastors, and others before the cameras. MSNBC anchor David Gregory marveled openly at the pervasive "spirituality" among the students. Industry sources reported the highest ratings of the year so far for both CNN and MSNBC.
On the Today show, Katie Couric had a riveting commercial-free interview with Eric Scott, 16, brother of slain Rachel Scott, and Michael Shoels, father of Isaiah Shoels, 18, a senior. Eric was with Isaiah, one of the few black students at Columbine, in the library when the youth was shot to death. They shared a common faith.
"I was praying to God to give me courage, and to keep protection over us," Eric said. At that moment, Mr. Shoels reached over to touch the boy's arm and took both his hands in his own.
CNN and MSNBC carried live Rachel Scott's funeral on Saturday at Trinity Christian Center. She was the second student to be buried. (The funeral of John Tomlin, 16, was held at 2,500-member Foothills Bible Church the preceding day.)
Rachel, an aspiring actress, was a member of the Breakthrough youth group at 3,000-plus-member Orchard Road Christian Center, an Assemblies of God church. She also was active at Cellebration (that's how it's spelled) Christian Center. Part of her family attends Trinity. So, pastors from all three churches took part in the funeral.
Pastor Bruce Porter of Cellebration said Rachel had become a Christian four-and-a-half years ago in a "powerful" conversion. Since then, she personified the love and grace of God-a theme repeated by many students who eulogized her.
"Prayer was reestablished in our public schools last Tuesday," he declared, prompting a wave of applause. "What the judiciary couldn't do, what the churches couldn't do, the children did themselves."
Rachel, he said, "carried the torch of love, compassion, and good news of the Savior." It has fallen from her hand. "Who will pick it up?" he asked. Hundreds of teens raised their hands, indicating they would.
On the same day Cassie Bernall's family and friends celebrated her life at the funeral service at West Bowles, Valeen Schnurr came home from the hospital, four bullets still inside her. The 18-year-old senior at Columbine High School was among the most critically wounded in last month's shootings at the school. She had at least nine bullet and shrapnel wounds down the left side of her body. Paramedics had told her parents they didn't expect her to live. Doctors at Swedish Medical Center attributed her survival and rapid recovery to "divine intervention," Valeen's mother said.
Divine intervention indeed. She was crouching next to her friend Lauren Townsend in the library when the killers swept through. She heard screams and shots at the other end of the room. Then one of the gunmen fired at her and others under the table.
"Oh my God!" she cried out as she felt pain in her abdomen. Lauren lay fatally wounded next to her.
"God?" the gunman taunted. "Do you believe in God?"
"Yes, I believe in God," Valeen recalls saying.
"Why?" the killer asked as paused to reload his weapon. Somehow Valeen managed to crawl back out of sight, and the gunman moved on to his next target. Valeen says she prayed constantly as she fought to stay awake and alert.
"Val was scared to say yes," her mother told reporters. "But she was scared to say no, because she thought she was dying."