I spent Easter weekend participating in events commemorating the 20th anniversary of the shootings at Columbine High School, which sits twenty miles from my home. Tension filled the air around Denver as the anniversary approached.  Half a million students were kept home from school as the FBI and local law enforcement searched for a young woman who, infatuated with Columbine, flew in from Florida and bought a pump-action shotgun and ammunition, sparking fears of another incident.

The mass murder at Columbine, one of the first such events captured on live television, opened a rift in modern society.  Some 43 copycat perpetrators worldwide have cited Columbine as the inspiration for their own assaults.  I spoke at a remembrance service that took place on Maundy Thursday, the day schools reopened after the young woman from Florida was found dead with a self-inflicted wound.  Uniformed policemen met us at the doors of the church, while their undercover counterparts milled among the crowd, looking for signs of trouble.

All week, local media had been broadcasting interviews with Columbine survivors.  It was a shock to see the familiar names and faces, teenagers frozen in time from 1999, now middle-aged adults with children of their own.  Reporters noted that, on entering the studio, most of the survivors first checked for the nearest Exit signs, a protective instinct carried over from their high school days.

I was in Florida on April 20, 1999, watching in horror as the Columbine events played out.  Exactly eight years later I received a call from a student leader in Blacksburg, Virginia.  “No doubt you’ve heard of the shootings at Virginia Tech,” he said.  “You wrote a book called Where Is God When It Hurts.  That’s the only question we’re asking here.  Could you possibly come and speak to us on that topic?”

Kacey Ruegsegger Johnson

I agreed, and brought with me Kacey Ruegsegger Johnson, a Columbine survivor permanently disabled by a shotgun blast into her shoulder at close range.  She knew what the Tech students were going through.  “When you return home, everyone will want you to put behind you what happened, and get over it,” she told them.  “You need to know that you never will.  You’ll live with it the rest of your lives.”  I first heard from Kacey the phrase “a new normal,” which has since become part of survivors’ vocabulary.  Indeed, in the wake of Columbine and so many other mass shootings, our entire nation has entered a somber new normal.

A grief pastor at a megachurch in Denver later told me he learned an important lesson while scuba diving.  “You can go very deep with the proper equipment.  But the deeper you go, the slower you must come to the surface, adjusting to the change in pressure.” I’ve found that Christians, especially, aren’t very skilled at handling grief.  We want the grieving person to get past it.  We offer platitudes and pat answers, such as “Everything happens for a reason.”  We need to learn a lesson from Job’s friends, who sat with him in silence for seven days and nights.  It was when they opened their mouths that the problems started.  Jews still “sit shiva” for seven days, like Job’s friends.  They understand that after a traumatic event, there’s a place for lament, for sorrow, for a “communion of grief.”

Columbine survivors have told me that trauma never completely disappears.  It surges back each time another school shooting makes the news, or when they see a man in a trench coat, or hear a car backfire.

Columbine students often asked their principal, Frank DeAngelis, “Will it ever get better?”  Yes, he answered, “but it’s a marathon, not a sprint.  It takes time.”  DeAngelis, who recently published his story in the book They Call Me Mr. De, led the long process toward healing.  Defying death threats, he promised to stay on the job until every student in the Columbine school district graduated, thirteen more years.  When the last kindergartner graduated, a parent called and said, “What about my son—he was enrolled in a two-year pre-school program?  So the principal stayed two more years, past retirement age.

Frank DeAngelis

Early on, DeAngelis met with families weekly, and scheduled regular “days of service” for Columbine students to give back to their community.  As Kacey Ruegsegger Johnson told me, “Community made all the difference here.  The students at Virginia Tech scattered, back to their homes, and lost the support of those around them who had shared the tragedy.  We’re a tight community.  I’d go to the grocery store with my arm in a sling and people would surround me with love and support.  We never felt alone.”

Columbine families met weekly for eighteen months to plan a new school library, named Hope, to replace the one where the main attack occurred.  As years went by, one survivor started a Sandy Hook-Columbine Cooperative to reach out to the devastated families in Newtown, Connecticut.  Frank DeAngelis joined the “I Love U Guys” foundation to minister to a school in a nearby county which also experienced a shooting.  Heather Martin began The Rebels Project, named for the Columbine school mascot, to bring counseling and support to other victims of school and workplace shootings.  Rachel Scott’s father founded Rachel’s Challenge to replace bullying with kindness and respect.

At the remembrance service, two Columbine survivors, Crystal Woodman Miller and Patrick Ireland, gave stirring testimonies, and Principal DeAngelis and a popular teacher openly talked about how their faith had sustained them.  It began to sound more like a revival service than a memorial, and afterward I jokingly asked the teacher, Tom Tonelli, if everyone at Columbine was an outspoken Christian.  He laughed, “It sometimes seems that way.  But I can’t imagine getting through an event like that without God’s strength to rely on.”

If I have learned one thing about tragedy, it is this: God is on the side of the sufferer.  “The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit,” says the psalmist.  The apostle Paul suggests how: “the God of all comfort…comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God.”

Makoto Fujimura

Makoto Fujimura, the renowned artist and director of the Culture Care Initiative at Fuller Seminary’s Brehm Center, presented the school with a painting he had begun twenty years before, when he first heard about the Columbine tragedy.  He also contributed a Kintsugi bowl from Japan.  “The original noodle bowl is from the 17th century,” he explained, “almost five hundred years old.  It broke, and in the Kintsugi tradition it lay in pieces until the 19th century.  Then craftsmen painstakingly pieced it together, sealing its broken seams with pure gold.

“Repaired, the bowl became far more beautiful, and valuable, than it had ever been, and even now it can hold water without leaking.  I give this ancient bowl to Columbine High School as a symbol of the forward-looking repair that is in process.  Rivers of gold can run through our brokenness.  Generations from now, the descendants of Columbine survivors will have this as a visible reminder that something beautiful can come from great sadness.”

The Kintsugi bowl evokes the biblical pattern of redemption.  The prophet Jeremiah wrote, “A voice is heard in Ramah, mourning and great weeping, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more.”  To express the trauma of Israel after invasions by Assyria and Babylon, he seized on the image of a national mother figure losing her child—exactly what the parents of Columbine students experienced in 1999.  How could God allow such a tragedy?  How could any good come from it?  Yet out of that trauma came the Hebrew Bible, or Old Testament, as scribes recorded the long history of God’s involvement with their nation.

Six centuries later, Matthew echoed that prophecy to express the grief of mothers who lost their children in Herod’s Massacre of the Innocents.  Again Rachel wept for her children, although Herod failed to eradicate his main target: Jesus’ family, like Israel, went into exile.  Later, Herod’s political successors succeeded where he had failed, executing Jesus in what seemed the end of the Galilean’s movement.  What appeared at the time as the darkest day of history, the murder of God’s own Son, turned into the triumph of Easter and a day we now call Good Friday.

“I never would have imagined that the worst thing that ever happened to me could truly be turned into something positive,” Crystal Woodman Miller told us at the memorial service.  “Out of evil, good may come.  Out of tragedy, hope may come.  I think it’s no accident that the twentieth anniversary of Columbine takes place on Holy Saturday, a day of utter despair.  But we believe in a God who is in the business of resurrection!”

Kintsugi bowl

As one family told me after the service, “We came tonight with anxiety, especially after the scare that took place in Denver this week.  Part of us wanted to stay away, to avoid the memories.  But we leave this church inspired and uplifted.  The scars will never go away.  But our hearts are full of hope.”

“Where is God when it hurts?” the Virginia Tech student asked me after the tragedy there.  I saw the answer among the survivors of a similar tragedy just down the road from my home.  God is in God’s people, reaching out to bring comfort and hope.  Columbine, a place known around the world as a center of tragedy, is also a place of resilience and redemption.  A place where pain and love converge.

 

 

 

 


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17 responses to “Easter at Columbine”

  1. Emma Binet says:

    Hi,

    i dont want to diminish the grief of the students in columbine. i just wanted to say that i come from a non christian home and became a christian after reading about Rachel Joy Scott in Rachel’s Tears. I’m still a christian 17 years later. God bless.

  2. Suwandy says:

    Hi Philip,

    Thank you as always for a wonderfully written article that highlights hope in the midst of darkness.
    In your own brilliant way, you have described vividly how God weaved His thread of hope through every brokenness and cracks in the pottery of life.

    I found myself angered at the recent and sudden increase of violence and deaths. The massacre in Christchurch, New Zealand. The killings of Christians on the same day in Nigeria. The bombings in Sri Lanka. The shooting in Jewish Synagogue in California. Your writing has helped me to remember that God is always present and He can (and will) turn these sad events into unparalleled hope.

  3. Ann O'Malley says:

    This is such a powerful message. Although difficult for me to read (even on the second and third reading, it brings tears to my eyes), it deepens my understanding of the ongoing pain in lives impacted by violence. I especially like the grief pastor’s analogy of scuba diving.
    I wonder if the typical Christian’s lack of skill in handling grief stems in part from a misunderstanding of what true faith looks like. Some evangelicals seem to believe that if we have enough faith, God will fix our problems without our having to think or to do any hard work.
    Many years ago, I heard a story about a Christian family that went something like this: The parents were traveling with their six children when they were involved in an accident caused by a grossly negligent driver. Two of their children were killed. The couple immediately “forgave” the driver and moved on with their lives. Within a few years, though, two of the surviving children committed suicide. In their now undeniable sorrow, the parents went to a Christian psychologist for help.
    It turned out that they had never faced their anger, doubts, and grief in the deaths of their first two children. They thought they were being good Christians, and they appeared to be coping, but the life of denial was too much for the two teens who committed suicide. It was only after the remaining family members dealt with their trauma and turmoil that they found true peace.
    It took work. It took time. It took courage. But God eventually brought healing when they stopped denying the pain.
    There are signs that we’re getting better as Christians in dealing with grief, as people like you address the problem more openly. (Thank you!) I wonder if it’s also because believers in younger generations (like those from Columbine) who have experienced serious trauma and have found a shallow view of faith inadequate, are now being used by God to help the rest of us develop a more biblical understanding of what having faith actually means.
    (Adapted from my blog at https://thosewhoweep.blogspot.com/2018/09/make-believe.html.)

  4. Virginia says:

    Thank you again, dear Philip. This comes after the NZ and Sri Lankan shootings, and how can we understand that awful hatred that must exist to shoot innocent faithful people down. But we all come together to comfort, restore and love again. And this
    is thanks to God’s love for us.
    Bles you all.

  5. Tim Ritchey Martin says:

    Thank you Phillip Yancey for being such an inspiring weaver of faith and life and grace. Your writing always inspires me to think in new ways and to be open to grace each day. Blessings!

  6. John W says:

    Always inspiring. Never trite. Faith in the real world. Thanks Philip

  7. Vicki says:

    My friend’s son was one of the students killed: Daniel Connor Mauser. He was 15. He wasn’t even in the same grade. He was a sophomore. He went to the library to return a book.

    Someone in my family was killed in a terrorist attack. That’s what led to my meeting his parents, Tom & Linda Mauser. Connor is her maiden name.

  8. Ghavang Haorei says:

    You’re my favorite writer and I love how you tell the truth by real life stories of God’s people. Thank you, Phillip.

  9. Rachel Rim says:

    Thanks for this poignant Easter meditation. I just used the story of Herod’s slaughter of the innocents in a final paper in conjunction with the prologue of the Decalogue, so it’s been on my mind for the past couple weeks. One thing I came away with after writing the paper was, “A God who is powerful enough to save (the exodus), yet tender enough to suffer (the exile into Egypt).” I don’t always believe both parts of it, but it’s a beautiful truth to aspire to believe.

    If you’re ever in the tri-state area (particularly Princeton!), I still hope to thank you in person one day for being a literary travel companion for me these past several years. And I definitely have the letter you wrote me as a motivator when seminary feels like a questionable life decision 🙂

  10. Pamela Wood says:

    Love this so much. Thank you. Pamela

  11. Karen Smith says:

    Thank you for the reminders that we are not alone and that God cares about for all of us. He loves us so. So let us pray without ceasing for the filling of the Holy Spirit in our lives. We need His comfort and strength to live for Christ each day.

  12. Eddie Chu says:

    A timely post in view of the Sri Lankan bombings. It’s hard at this time to see how God can bring anything good out of this horrible event. We can only wished hindsight can come sooner. This article helps to bring hope who are now looking on with despair.

  13. Dianne Lami says:

    Oh, my goodness, how very timely this blog post is! A dear friend’s granddaughter in eighth grade has been bullied nearly the entire year! She doesn’t want to go to school! And this is a private parochial school! You’d think! When I read the words Rachel’s Challenge, I immediately went to the site, watched three videos, and sent the link to my friend, urging her to send this to her granddaughter’s principal.

    This tragic event ranks up there, or should I say, down there, with the assassination of JFK; I know exactly where I was when it happened. This article is full of hope. I am ever so grateful the principal proved to stay the course and be there for his community, even beyond his retirement age.

    God be with all those touched by this tragedy. I am so very encouraged that folks moved forward and chose to put their memories, their grief into action and do something such as Rachel’s Challenge to help young people all over the country to see there is hope, right where they are; and that they are important, valued, loved. Even in their own school.

  14. Thanka for yourcexcellent Columbine story.
    Jesus saves us from grief and loss.

    Springtime blessings,
    Joyce

  15. Rico del Rosario says:

    Dear Philip,

    In my country today, more than 30,000 Filipinos have been killed in President Duterte’s bloody drug war. Many corrupt politicians allied with the president have been set free, and are now running in the upcoming elections for seats in the Senate. We are in danger of losing our country to Chinese interests.

    After reading your blog entry today, I cried in prayer that somehow God can make something beautiful come out of the dark pit the Philippines is in now. But Filipinos need to cry out to God for help.

  16. David Strutt says:

    Thank you, Philip Yancey, and all those who contributed. Bless you all.

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