Columbine High School

While other media observe Columbine's 20th anniversary, the Los Angeles Times goes for the God angle

While other media observe Columbine's 20th anniversary, the Los Angeles Times goes for the God angle

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.

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 Westword profiles Columbine survivors Amanda Stair, Alisha Basore and Sam Granillo 

 Westword profiles Columbine survivors Amanda Stair, Alisha Basore and Sam Granillo 

School shootings of the past claimed three new victims in late March: Sydney Aiello, whose friend Meadow Pollack died in the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School massacre of 2018; an unidentified youngman who also attended Marjory Stoneman Douglas; and Jeremy Richmond, whose daughter, Avielle, died in the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre of 2012.

Only a few days before these deaths, Alan Prendergast published a longform feature in Denver’s venerable alternative weekly, Westword, about survivors of the shootings at Columbine High School in April 1999.

Columbine became the most iconic of school shootings in American memory, although dozens of school shootings had preceded it since the 19th century.

What changed? The Columbine shootings provided the template for revenge killings in the social-media age: leave homemade videos that explain your ever-growing list of resentments; dress like a killer in a video game; taunt and shoot your victims point-black; kill yourself, or spend your remaining years asking judges or juries to step inside your vortex of death. The event was also packed with haunting questions linked to religious faith.

Prendergast focuses on the people who are often lost amid the headlines: classmates who live with survivor’s guilt. His subjects have found the will to survive. Prendergast leads with Amanda Stair, who has made several videos about her life as a Columbine survivor.

Stair’s brother, Joe, fell under suspicion amid early reports (which proved inaccurate) that the killers were part of the Trench Coat Mafia, which he helped found. Joe Stair committed suicide in 2007.

Prendergast’s narrative make Stair’s story more anguished because it so focused:

Before the killers entered the library, two other students took cover under the same table where Amanda Stair was hiding. One of them was killed. The other barely survived, her shoulder shattered by a shotgun blast. No bullets struck Stair, but that’s not to say she emerged unscathed.

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Young Greek atheist in a trench coat: The matrix of symbols on display at Santa Fe High

Young Greek atheist in a trench coat: The matrix of symbols on display at Santa Fe High

No doubt about it. It's hard to get more Greek than the name "Dimitrios Pagourtzis." So, yes, I was not surprised to receive emails asking me the significance of the Greek Orthodox heritage (and ethnic dancing skills) of America's latest young student with guns and a mission.

Once again, we face questions about the contents of a gunman's head and heart, as journalists (and law officials) try to answer the always painful "Why?" question in the mantra, "Who, What, Where, When, Why and How."

The Orthodox connection is mentioned in most background stories about Pagourtzis. Here is a TMZ reference with a link to video. You will not, when viewing it, be tempted to shout, "Opa!"

The student arrested for gunning down 10 people at his high school appeared to be nothing more than a church-going dancer mere days before the shooting.

TMZ has obtained video of 17-year-old Dimitrios Pagourtzis participating in a choreographed dance for his Greek Orthodox church the weekend before he allegedly shot and killed 8 of his peers and 2 teachers.

Sources connected to the event tell us the dance was part of a larger Greek festival in a town about 30 minutes away from Santa Fe, TX where he went to school. 

In traditional, even elite, media this Greek Orthodox information is more likely to look like this -- care of The New York Times.

Investigators, meanwhile, are scouring his journal, a computer and a cellphone that Mr. Abbott said showed the suspect had been planning the attack, and his own death. ... 

In many ways, Mr. Pagourtzis was a part of the Santa Fe community. He made the honor roll. He played defensive tackle on a school football team that was the pride of the town. His family was involved in the Greek Orthodox Church.

As always, in this digital-screens world of ours, what a person does with his or her time in analog life (like dancing in an ethnic dance team) may not be as important as what the person expresses in social media.

It's interesting to note that the Times team did not include the following piece of social-media information about Pagourtzis -- which did make it into print at The Washington Post.

In the Facebook account, he described himself as an atheist and said, “I hate politics.”

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'Thoughts and prayers': Yet another fight over whether religious faith is 'real' or not

'Thoughts and prayers': Yet another fight over whether religious faith is 'real' or not

Why are so many people mad about the "thoughts and prayers" angle of the tragedy at First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas?

That was the question that host Todd Wilken asked at the start of this week's "Crossroads" podcast (click here to tune that in).

The short answer is that many Americans think that "prayers" are not real, if the goal is solving a problem in the real world, while gun-control legislation is "real," since it is linked to government and politics. As I wrote in my national "On Religion" column earlier this week, after interviewing Tim Stewart, a professional editor-writer who who created the "Dictionary of Christianese" website;

It's obvious, explained Stewart, that many Americans believe that this kind of prayer talk after disasters or tragedies is meaningless, a kind of emotional fog that helps public leaders avoid action on tough issues.
It only makes matters worse when these criticisms of "thoughts and prayers" language turn into nasty attacks. After all, millions of believers sincerely think that prayer is the first step to any faithful effort to help others through charity, ministry, political activism or any other strategy in public life.

In other words, this controversy is -- stop and think about it -- another way of looking at the decades of debate among editors and reporters about how and why religion news should or should not be covered in the first place. The bottom line: Politics is "real" and "public," while religious faith is "private" and "spiritual."

I'm not sure why, but I found myself thinking , earlier this week, about a famous event in the life of the man who would become St. Pope John Paul II. It was during his work as an archbishop of Poland, wrestling with the powers that be in the Communist party.

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