I couldn't let this day pass without writing something. April 20, 1999 - It was quite possibly one of the most pivotal experiences of my life. So here I am...in the 11th hour. I wasn't a direct victim. I wasn't a student or a family member. I was simply a 19 year old volunteer leader in a local church youth group. In a youth group of nearly 150 kids, 45 were students at Columbine. I can still visualize in my mind's eye the printed out roster that we used to cross off the names on the list of those who had been accounted for. One-by-one all of the names were crossed off the list...except for hers. As the day carried on and it became more apparent that she was one of the fallen, I found myself in the run-down church office restroom peering at my own image in the mirror. I think I may have even spoken out loud, "This is not happening. She can't be gone."
We were supposed to talk that very evening after our weekly book study. Something had been bothering her and I had been encouraged by our youth pastor to get together with her to discuss what had been going on in her life, her mind, her faith. Her hair. That's all I could think of actually. Her long blonde beautiful hair. This couldn't be happening. She couldn't be gone. But she was. And I had to tell her closest friend in the youth group - she was from a different high school and she was ironically named Cassandra. As she entered the youth building that evening to gather with the rest us I ushered her into the girls restroom (the closest place we could escape to for a bit of privacy). I'm not sure how I got the words out. I think I just whispered that we were fairly certain that she was gone, though confirmation wasn't made until the following day. Cassandra literally fell into my arms and we both struggled to remain standing in that crowded bathroom where the sobs of teenage girls reverberated off of every wall.
After allowing for a time of coming together, praying with and embracing one another, a handful of us departed and spent the rest of our evening at a nearby elementary school where the families of victims still unidentified waited. Waiting. We just sat there waiting. I watched therapists and crisis relief counselors wander around the gymnasium scanning the room for an invitation. There was another room set up with a television broadcasting the continual news coverage. I couldn't stay in that particular room for any length of time. But I didn't know what to do. So I waited. I watched. There they were sitting surrounded by faces I knew and faces I didn't know. The Bernalls - Brad & Misty. I don't remember seeing Cassie's little brother Chris, but he may have been there as well. All I could do was watch. And wait.
I'm fairly certain, though I'm sure some details have been constructed by my own mind, that it was that evening that we first heard rumblings of a conversation that may or may not have taken place prior to Cassie's execution. Our youth pastor had heard a student exit the building screaming, "They asked her if she believed in God and she said yes...and then they killed her." I'm not sure how or when it became the story that much of the media frenzy focused upon...but it happened. She was called a martyr by many. I always had a difficult time with that term only because it seemed to imply that she died as direct result of her faith in God and I'm not sure that was the case. From this vantage point, it seems that Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold were not specifically targeting anyone in particular. Mass destruction, mass murder - that appears to have been their sole aim.
On the other hand, I don't know of a better term than martyr to explain the decision to lay down one's own life in order to follow a God of love. In that sense, Cassie was very much a martyr - not in her death, but in her living-daily-death to the parts of her self that prevented Christ's love from flowing through her into the lives of others. So whether or not she was asked that poignant question at the time of the shooting or not, she did say yes - with her life.
We were criticized as a church by many. The first controversy we encountered was when we made the collective decision to plant 15 trees in a prayer garden on our church property. I still have the notes I took during a meeting with all of our leaders as we discussed what our purpose was in erecting this memorial garden. Our intent was never to memorialize the two boys who brought about such horror, but we acknowledged that there were 15 families suffering an unimaginable loss and we wanted to always remember that. I'll never forget what it was like to watch our youth group kids serving coffee to the protesters that stood in front of our facility crying for vengeance. They chopped down two of the young trees in our garden. I waited. I watched. One of the members of our congregation used the remains from the trees to construct 15 beautiful ornaments.
Misty wanted to write a book about Cassie's transformation. We all wanted to share the story of her life with the world. Many have called this exploitation. They claim that we utilized a mythic story to propagate Christianity. Looking back, I am willing to say that there was some level of exploitation...but not to manipulate people into converting to Christianity. But we may have exploited the story of Cassie's life and death in order to tend to our own sense of loss and devastation. We honestly believed it was a story worth sharing. She was a young girl worth knowing. And we wanted everyone to know her. We wanted her life to matter to more than just us. And it has mattered to many others as a result of our mutual sharing of her story.
Many have accused us of spiritualizing the entire event. And they're right as well. We found meaning in her death, and the deaths of the others as well. We believed that through this horrific tragedy God was collectively enabling us to loosen our grip on this world so that we might live with eyes for the kingdom. This may not make sense to others who didn't experience Columbine in some way, or possibly a similar trauma or experience of loss. I don't mean to suggest that we became detached from this world in the hopes of someday being rescued and reunited with those we loved. Instead, we became convinced that love was all that mattered. Living now - moment to moment was all we could commit ourselves to. I still believe that God was very much a part of what we experienced that day and in the years that followed.
In the past few years I have "psychologized" the experience. I have attempted to explore the ways in which we spiritualize certain aspects of this life in order to cope or even escape realities too painful to bear. I have tried to make sense of what happened in the minds of Eric and Dylan - what were their possible pathologies and how did they happen to be simultaneously fractured in such a way as to create the perfect storm for mass destruction? I have analyzed my own response to the trauma too many times to count and from every possible angle.
Am I any further than I was ten years ago in making sense of not only this traumatic experience, but in making sense of this life? Maybe. Or maybe not. But I think that there is room in my soul for questions to remain unanswered. And with this space for unanswered questions remains a certainty that love is all that matters.
Cassie, you have been dearly loved. Even still.