Thursday, September 28, 2006

Platte Canyon shootings bring back terrible memories.

Watching the terrible story of the latest school atrocity unfold, I was transported back in time to my former home in Golden, Colorado, and a phone call I was eagerly awaiting one morning, from a woman giving me the good news that I was the successful candidate for the small Portland congregation I'd applied to serve. It was April, 1999, and I was about to graduate from seminary and begin ministry.

I had the radio turned on to the local classical music station when a bulletin interrupted the music: "There has been a shooting at Columbine High School, police are on the way, students are being evacuated, the shooters are still in the building, gunfire has been heard repeatedly."

Columbine High School was about 20 minutes south of my home. I had friends on the faculty there, men and women I knew through the Education Association of Jefferson County Schools and my church. I knew students there. I knew ministry students who served congregations in that neighborhood. I knew the minister of the Columbine UU Congregation.

The phone rang. It was Margaret Beard of the UUA, telling me that I had been selected to serve the new congregation Wy'east UU in Portland as an extension minister, starting in August. Margaret gave me her news in one ear while in the other ear I could hear the radio blaring its dreadful news. I asked her to hang on while I turned on the television and gave her a play by play of the helicopter views of students rushing from the building, police trying to decide what to do, parents arriving in a panic.

Our conversation ended and she said she'd be in prayer for all of us who were affected by this horrifying event. As soon as I could get away from the house, I went to the Columbine church and spent the rest of the afternoon and evening with my colleague Joel Miller and other ministers who gathered there to lend support to Joel and his congregation. We learned that during the melee, many students and a teacher had died, others were badly injured and traumatized. None of Joel's youth had been hurt or killed but some youth from the Mormon church across the street had been trapped in classrooms.

Colorado was stunned senseless by this event. The next day I drove to my seminary to sit as if drugged by grief with friend Esther Cho who had lost one student and feared for the survival of another. What could we do? What could we do? We prayed, we offered memorial services, and we were angry, especially when a huge public memorial service featured Franklin Graham, son of Billy but without Billy Graham's sense of appropriateness, who offered a reflection blaming the godlessness of society and prayed for the dead "in Jesus' name", though non-Christian students had died and been injured.

All this came back to me today as I watched the students of Platte Canyon High School, just up the road from Columbine, where the nightmare had occurred once again.

1 comment:

LinguistFriend said...

That must have been a difficult experience to live through, even though not as a participant or parent of one. I have seen the results of death of humans many times in the autopsy room and in the morgue, and death of non-human animals in the slaughterhouse and in the research lab; they are terrible to see at first, and never become easy to see. They are not as familiar to us now as they were in the 19th century, but death and subsequent events still provide one of the motive forces
for religion, as Alan Segal has detailed in his study of such concepts in the Jewish-Christian tradition. It is especially difficult when it is needless, as in the death of a local colleague here who recently choked to death in front of her middle-school age daughter. But death from a form of madness in events must be particularly terrible. Few books bring this home to one as much as Elie Wiesel's first Holocaust book, recently retranslated.