Monday, April 20, 2009

April 20, 1999...

was the bright Denver day when Margaret Beard, director of Extension Ministry services at the UUA, called me late morning to give me the good news that I would be hearing from Wy'east UU Congregation in Portland, Oregon, about my possible appointment as their new Extension/New Congregation minister. Oohing and aahing on the phone to Margaret about how exciting it would be to be back in Portland, my old home town, I was dimly aware of unusual sounds coming from the radio, which I normally had tuned to the local classical music station, KVOD.

"Just a minute," I said to her finally, "there's something bad happening here and I don't know what it is. It sounds like a shooting at a school. I'd better let you go."

"I hope it's nothing too serious," she said, "and congratulations on your new adventure. I hope it all works out well."

Off the phone, I turned up the radio, which normally would have been lilting out Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms tunes. Instead, in a radical move for this classical station, it was giving constant updates on a terrible event unfolding at Columbine High School, where I knew the counselors, some teachers, a few kids whom I'd met while working with Columbine UU Church founders.

I was one month away from graduation from Iliff School of Theology and during my final year we had already experienced the murder of Matthew Shepard, an event which reverberated through our classrooms as we attempted to be pastoral to our bglt classmates and support the student pastors in Laramie WY churches.

Thinking about what I could do, I called the minister of Columbine UUC and left him a message, "I'm coming down, Joel, I don't know if I can be helpful but I would like to be."

Several of us gathered that afternoon at CUUC to think about how to address the massacre, its victims, its survivors, our congregations, the press. It was an event of such magnitude that few of us had ever experienced anything similar. But we kept the church open for drop-ins, made ourselves available, organized a vigil for the next night, went to the Mormon congregation across the street to see if they were okay.

We discovered that several Iliff students had close connections to Columbine teens; some had members of their youth groups killed or injured. Lives and psyches hung in the balance for days, weeks. A teacher in my home congregation had been in her classroom, huddled with her students. My Columbine counseling colleagues from my school district days were devastated by their own helplessness at the time.

So much anger and grief and helpless pity. Though there was at least one Jewish student among the victims, Franklin Graham came to town and offered a Jesus-centered prayer at the public memorial service a few days later, suggesting that non-Christian policies had been to blame. We were enraged. Crosses for all the victims, including the murderers, inspired others' rage. There was so much rage that we felt beaten down by it.

But at the public memorial service in the park across the street, student body leaders---and this I will never forget---stood at the microphones and spoke of their hope that the tragedy would change things for the better. And the young woman who spoke reminded the crowd of the spirit cry "We Are Columbine", used at ball games and school events. "Now we are ALL Columbine", she said, and invited the crowd of thousands to echo her words.

"We Are Columbine" roared the crowd, over and over. And those words echo down the years to me and bring me back to that sunny morning, the tears come, and I am reminded of incredible courage and resiliency in the face of terrible loss, despite the questions that remain, the mistakes made, the lives lost and changed forever.

We Are All Columbine. Yes, we are.


Anonymous said...

What a sad sad day that was Kit. I did not know you were there. Thanks for posting this.

Masasa said...

Ms. Kitty, your description hits home for me. I was in Colorado. I'd been out of high school for only about four years by that point. My thoughts immediately turned to the younger siblings of my old YRUU friends from district youth programming. And yes, I remember my emotions also being wrapped up still in Matthew Shephard's death. He used to hang at the gay bar in my town in Colorado-- the same gay bar where I spent my late teen and early young adult years-- and he died in the hospital where I worked as candlelight vigils were held outside. That violence all felt so close to home, and it touched me deeply in those formative years of my adulthood.

Mile High Pixie said...

It was a very hard time indeed. As a grad student in Florida when it happened, and the empty sense of loss I felt when my dad was killed fell over my sister and me again.

I posted about this at my blog--would you mind emailing me? I had some other insights on this event I wanted to share with you, if you don't mind.

ms. kitty said...

Thanks, Anon, Masasa, and Pixie. I appreciate your thoughts. Masasa, I'd love to hear more about your YRUU friends---I'll bet we have people in common. My son was very active in district youth stuff in the late 80's and early 90's. You might know him.

Pixie, I'll email you. I was hit hard by your thoughts at your blog.

Masasa said...

Ms. Kitty, I bet my older sisters know him or know of him if I don't. I'll try to remember to email you on this.