Over the weekend, there were some haunting stories about the 20th anniversary of the shootings at Columbine High School just outside of Denver. I remember our newsroom in Washington, D.C. scrambling to put together a story from more than 1,200 miles away.
Fortunately, we had a staff writer, Valerie Richardson, who lived not far away from the school and rushed over there as fast as she could as she knew this was historic and there’d never been such a mass shooting at a school before.
Sadly, much has changed since then and school shootings have become part of the American landscape. I wish to spotlight two stories; one of which gives a well-deserved place to religious faith and the other that ignored it.
The first story, from the Los Angeles Times, was about the pastors who were tasked with having to comfort the afflicted families and deliver sermons at the funerals of their children.
They were the men of faith faced with a seemingly impossible task — providing comfort, hope, maybe understanding — after 12 students and a teacher were shot to death at Columbine High School.
Bill Oudemolen presided over the funeral for 16-year-old John Tomlin days after the mass shooting. The pastor told the large crowd at Foothills Bible Church that he just didn’t want to accept what had happened.
“He was killed simply because he went to school Tuesday morning,” Oudemolen told the crowd in Littleton, Colo. “Schools are supposed to be safe zones, not killing fields.” …
These men had the impossible tax of explaining how God could let this happen.
More than a dozen pastors presided over or aided with funerals and memorials for those slain at Columbine on April 20, 1999. Some have retired. One left his position to start a wealth management company. Another is an architect. A couple left the state. Others are pastors still. Like many who lived through it, they feel the tragedy regularly enough…
Oudemolen was apparently pushed out of his church at the age of 67, so he and his wife are moving out of the area.
Even though there were many pastors called upon for funerals of the slain, when they stood to deliver sermons — trying to shepherd families through grief, a community through mourning and a nation through shock — they stood alone.
Bruce Porter remembers crying in a dark room before the funeral of Rachel Scott. The pastor said he felt overwhelmed by the expectations, the media glare and wanting to help Rachel’s family in some small fashion.
“I was praying fervently that God would give me words,” Porter said. “I felt in way over my head. Way, way out of my depth.”
Porter ended up traveling around the country talking about Rachel. Other churches that existed 20 years ago and which hosted some of the funerals have closed.
Several of the pastors interviewed saw their lives changed forever –- and not always for the better -– by Columbine. Most are men whose brief moment in the sun was followed by lives of quiet desperation.
A USA Today story on Sean Graves, a Columbine survivor who endured 49 surgeries after the attack, is immensely interesting but it leaves out something.
LITTLETON, Colo. – The nightmares come each spring. In the dark of his bedroom just a few miles from where it all began, Sean Graves relives the feeling of bullets slamming through his stomach, the odd sensation of something somehow sliding through him.
He always worries about shootings, that his wife and daughter will be trapped or threatened by gunmen, that they won't be able to find a way to escape. But as every April approaches, his mind returns to a very specific day, a specific memory, when two classmates with trench coats and duffel bags opened fire.
He is back at Columbine.
Back to being a 15-year-old freshman who loves comic books and MacGyver.
Back to lying on the cold concrete and shattered glass.
Back to the fire alarm ringing and shots being fired and his blood soaking his thin black jacket.
"I'm in the history books," Graves says sadly on a recent afternoon as he watches his 3-year-old-daughter, Olivia, play nearby. "I didn't choose the cards we were dealt. We just have to play them."
The story has great quotes, such as the above one, and does a good job of following Graves’ agonizing journey as he learns to walk again, gets married and – after six miscarriages and a failed adoption – the couple finally has a baby girl.
The reporter also interviewed Frank DeAngelis, who was Columbine’s principal on the day of the shooting and how, even now, he gets so traumatized every April that he simply doesn’t drive this time of year. That’s an amazing anecdote.
But the reporter skirted all mention of Graves’ and DeAngelis’ Catholic faith. I found that talked about in the Denver Catholic. With DeAngelis:
After leading the school through the immediate crisis, his long-range goal was to hand every kid in elementary school the day of the tragedy a Columbine diploma.
“Fortunately I was able to do that,” he said.
“One of the reasons I’ve stayed on so long was I just believe that God had a plan for me,” he continued, “and hopefully in a humbling way I was able to carry forth with that plan.”
As for Graves:
Sean said he is stronger, more resilient and a lot more in touch with his faith since the shooting.
“I always prayed before,” he said, mentioning that he began to pray as soon as he regained consciousness after being shot. “Now I take less for granted. I’m grateful for what I do have: I’m in pain, but I’m grateful I’m able to walk down the stairs and get a cup of coffee.”
One wonders: Did the reporter simply not ask what helped these two men get through the past 20 years? Or was the information presented to him and he chose not to use it? We call these religion “ghosts;” religious angles to a story that get ignored.
In this case, the Los Angeles Times chose to find a religion angle and USA Today did not. The Denver Post did a package on the anniversary as well, but one has to look hard to find any faith angle. There is one in the interview with the brother of Rachel Scott, one of the slain students.
Craig Scott, Rachel’s brother, was at Columbine that day, too.
He escaped with his life, despite being in the library when the killers entered “shooting off their guns, treating it like a game.” Hiding under a table, he watched them kill his friends Isaiah Shoels and Matt Kechter.
“I was lying in their blood and I thought I was going to die,” he said. “The only thing I could do at that moment was to pray. I asked God to take away all of the fear I was having ‘cause I felt like I couldn’t breathe. I felt like my heart was going to stop beating. And so I felt relief from my fear, and then I heard God speak to me and tell me to get out of there.”
And be sure to look at the video atop this piece that appeared on The Today Show about how the Scott family chose to forgive the shooters. At least that and the Los Angeles Times story tried to make some sense of the tragedy.
Not that anyone has come up with a divine reason for Columbine but at least the Today Show and the Times posed the question.