It was a beautiful spring day and, as a junior in high school, I was hoping a teacher would give in to my peers and I begging to have class outside. We were looking forward to prom in just over a week. I’ll never forget that day.
It was the day my life forever changed.
The date was Tuesday, April 20, 1999 and before the school day was over five of my friends would be dead. That day two disturbed teens walked into Columbine High School and murdered 12 students and a teacher. It’s a day that many were wounded physically, psychologically, and emotionally. Some were gunned down specifically because of their belief in Christ and others were questioned about their faith after being shot. It is a day that will forever be seared into my memory.
I was involved in my youth group and after the shooting people naturally fled to their churches. As I arrived at my Church that afternoon I was still searching for several of my missing friends. At this point the hundreds of students who had been trapped in Columbine for hours, hiding from the gunmen, had now been evacuated – at least all those who had survived. Many people didn’t have cell phones and information that was being spread wasn’t always accurate. I had decided that I would only trust that someone was okay if myself or one of my friends had seen or spoken with them personally. I had called every one of my friends phone numbers and scanning the TV, looking for my friends, as groups of students ran out of Columbine with their hands over their head; I had a list of people I knew had survived…but I still hadn’t found all of my friends.
As teens began arriving at Church most were walking around like shellshocked zombies. It’s hard to describe how your brain can register that someone is okay through talking to them on the phone, but seeing them in person is the only way that your heart believes it. There was a momentary sense of relief as I gave each friend a hug, only to quickly realize that I still had friends that were missing. Some friends arrived at Church and were still in shock from what they had just survived; their hands and arms shaking uncontrollably. Core Team members (adult volunteers for our youth group) with medical careers took them aside to help them. By the end of the day, my peers and I didn’t know who all was missing but we knew that 4 youth from my Church had yet to be found. The hope was that they were at local hospitals being treated, but my gut knew that some of my friends were still at school. It wouldn’t be for another two days until we had received confirmation of who had been killed.
There was no handbook on how to minister to youth after a massacre such as this. In the years following the shooting I had multiple friends and mentors die from various causes. When I began my career as a youth minister, there were several deaths at my parish that directly affected my teens. Having had the experience as a teen who endured great trauma and a youth minister who ministered to those undergoing trauma, here are some practical tips:
As I walked into my Church to day of the shooting there wasn’t anything that anyone could say to “make things better”. I can hardly recall what anyone said to me, but what I do remember is exactly where every Core Team member was when I walked in the room. Their presence showed that they cared about and loved me. That, even though my world had been rocked, they would help hold my foundation together. That was the greatest support I needed at that moment. The fact that the Core Team members had built relationships with me prior to the shooting made all the difference for me to know that they truly cared about me and desired to journey with me and love on me in the aftermath.
Hold a service or 2 or 10
The night of the shooting my parish held a service. I thank God that it was not advertised on local media outlets because this protected me from having to fight through 20 feet of unsympathetic news crews in order to get to my Church. My friends at other Churches had to fight to make it through their Church doors. I don’t recall how people knew to show up, but it was a packed house. At one point the Columbine students were called to the front and prayed over. It was an opportunity for people to connect and for teens to see the support of the adults and community.
In the days following there were several more services, some during the day and others in the evening. Funerals began the following week and one of them was joint and held during our Sunday evening teen Mass. In the months following the shooting it seemed that tragedies continued to happen in our community so all of the Churches united and had a prayer walk, each walking and praying from their Church to the main park combating the spiritual warfare and reclaimin our community. Throughout this time our leaders were praying for us in abundance.
Protect them from the media
The media was worse than vultures. I visited the makeshift memorial with some friends and couldn’t even take a moment to grieve because we were so busy encircling those who were crying to protect them from the media who would literally shove their cameras within inches of their faces and begin a barrage of questions shortly after. Sadly, the media added additional trauma to a horrendous situation, and this isn’t including them publishing front page photos of Danny’s body laying dead and crumpled on the sidewalk (which is how his parents received confirmation of his death) or other students who were bloodied and fighting for their lives at a triage location before going to the hospital.
My Church was adamant that only two new crews would be allowed on the property and they had to stay in a specific area that was marked off for them. They could videotape but were not allowed to talk with anyone. Any media that desired to speak with parishioners had to setup appointments for interviews. As the days dragged on the hundreds of media who had swarmed our town cared less and less about causing further trauma to a broken community and only cared about getting the perfect shot. To this day I feel a plethora of emotions well up within me when I see professional photographers or videographers trying to ‘get the shot’ at an event I’m attending.
Feed the traumatized
Following the shooting there was an abundance of food that was donated. It lay in our parish hall, untouched. Two days after the shooting a Core Team member asked me if I had eaten. I was surprised by the odd question and told her I wasn’t hungry. She sternly responded, “I didn’t ask if you were hungry. I asked if you have eaten!” It was her stern demeanor that shook me and caused me to realize that the last time I ate was before the shooting…two days prior. When I told her that I hadn’t she put her hand on my shoulder and lovingly replied, “Okay. Let’s get you something to eat.” Following traumas, basic needs can be forgotten so you may need to actually put food on a plate and serve those in need.
Create a safe haven
Everywhere I looked I was over inundated with the shooting: the paper, TV, emergency personnel in the streets, flowers, memorial ribbons, and media in every direction I turned. There was no escaping it…except in our youth room. They played The Land Before Time movies back to back in our youth room so that we could escape the overabundance and intensity of the trauma for at least a few moments. This was also a place that we knew we could just hang out with our friends and not be hounded by media.
Give them permission to talk…or not
Counselors, counselors everywhere but no one wants to speak. It was important to start talking about our experience in order to process it, but I didn’t wanted to talk with some random counselor who only cared about me because my friends were killed. I figured, if they didn’t care about me before the shooting then after all this dies down, they won’t care about me afterwards either. I wanted to talk with people that I knew and people that knew me. I strongly recommend having a counselor that you bring into your youth group before a major trauma occurs. Maybe they give a talk or help with small groups. Maybe they just chat with the youth or volunteer. You don’t even need to tell the youth they’re a counselor. Building that foundation of a relationship before the trauma can make all the difference in the teen’s willingness to speak with them and open up afterwards.
Ministry of presence
Often times the Core Team would simply be present in the youth room with us. They avoided cliches like, “How’s it going? Everything’s going to be okay. God allowed this for a reason.” Those cliches wouldn’t have helped anything. Instead, they would ask if we wanted to talk or ask us to tell them about our friends who were killed. If we didn’t want to talk, they wouldn’t push the issue. Most of the time they were just there with us and for us. They went to the funerals of our friends and were a shoulder for us to cry on. I’m sure they were continually praying for us as well.
I pray that you never experience the pain that we went through, but school shootings have become heartbreakingly common. There was much more that was done and that needed to be done in the weeks, months, and years following the shooting (adjusting to day-to-day living, learning about a plethora of miracles and how God intervened to save hundreds of lives, leaders being vulnerable in their struggles and pain, trying to decipher what ‘the healing process’ meant for each individual, finding a new normal, dealing with triggers, trying to recognize and understand PTSD, learning to function on minuscule amounts of sleep, finding hope, youth ministers being present for the long haul, etc.).
If you have questions or would like to hear more on this topic please comment below or send me an e-mail at gwen@NextLevelMinistry.org. And please pray for those who continue to struggle with the longterm fallout of this tragedy.
In memory of Daniel Mauser, Kelly Fleming, Rachel Scott, Lauren Townsend, Matt Kechter, Corey DePooter, Danny Rohrbough, John Tomlin, Isaiah Shoels, Kyle Velasquez, Steven Curnow, Cassie Bernall, and Dave Sanders.
Striving to live in honor of your legacy that was cut short.