|The first time I met Cassie Bernall was through her parents. They came to the church for counsel because their daughter's fascination with the occult was taking a heavy toll on the family. Rebellion. Anger. Self-destructiveness. It was pretty serious. Over a period of time, however, Cassie's heart softened, and she started attending a Christian school. Between the influences of that school and our church, she began to see life in Christ as more than a religious exercise; she met people genuinely in love with our Lord. And Cassie gave her life to Jesus. Soon after, she asked her parents if she could go back to public school because she wanted to reach out to kids as bitter and lost as she had been.|
That's how Cassie Bernall ended up at Columbine High School. And how her life was taken from her on April 20, 1999, during the tragic school shootings that left 15 people dead. At gunpoint, this once-wayward girl was asked if she believed in God. She said "yes." A split-second later, Cassie was gone. Yet since that day, God has used one girl's martyrdom to impact countless lives and challenge my approach to youth ministry.
It grieves me to admit it, but as a youth pastor, I failed Cassie. Every Sunday I kept track of where she was out of the corner of my eye because she always had a question that took 30 minutes to answer. I tried to avoid her. Finally, the Monday before Cassie died, the youth staff discussed how we might get her more involved because she was hurting. She wanted to do more for God.
Our youth group acknowledges that they had failed, too. They failed the disturbed gunmen, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold. Many of my teens knew Eric and Dylan, but were intimidated by them. Dylan walked through the halls in a black trench coat bumping into kids, looking for a fight. Intimidation aside, some will admit, "I knew them well. I just didn't reach out to them, say 'hi' or invite them to church." Fifty-five kids from West Bowles Community Church were at Columbine High School April 20, 1999. One lost her life. Rejecting transfers, home-schooling and Christian school as "safer" options, the other 54 all returned to those haunted halls with a renewed vision for their peers.
How can we inspire our teens to reach out to disenfranchised classmates? It has to come over time. We can't just lead a charge on our public schools. It comes from reminding kids that Jesus Christ was not about self … or security. Columbine caused millions of parents to ask, "Is my child safe?" The answer is "no." We live in a dangerous world. We want faith without risk. But the message of Christ is to go into the school and look for the kid sitting by himself at lunch, because he's an Eric or a Dylan. Look for the one who walks through the halls in brooding silence. He's an Eric or a Dylan.
Since Columbine, my youth have engaged their campuses and started asking, "What's your name? Will you come to church with me?" We have all kinds of teens in our group now. Some are involved in oppressive stuff—like Cassie was—but they're also checking out God. Today, when visitors come to our gatherings, 50 regulars meet them before they leave. We insist on it. I remember as a teen going to youth groups where not one person talked to me. I wouldn't even get a "hi" from the youth pastor. We have to do better than that.
On the day she was killed, Cassie told a friend how much she was looking forward to the evening Bible study. They were working through Seeking Peace, and one of the things she had underlined was, "If a seed refuses to fall to the ground and die, it remains a single seed." She had also highlighted Martin Luther King's statement, "If a man hasn't found something worth dying for, he's not fit to live." She was ready to face her moment of truth.
I've uttered a lot of prayers since that awful day. And in those quiet moments, I've sensed the Lord telling me that it's time for His church to wake up and reach out. I believe Cassie fulfilled her calling. Now it's our turn.
Called upon as an agent of grace in the wake of the Columbine tragedy, Dave McPherson had spent the previous decade working with young people at West Bowles Community Church in Littleton, Colorado.
Published April 2000