On April 22, 1999, the phone rang in my Denver home. I had been expecting the call---Margaret Beard, Extension Director at the UUA, was phoning me to let me know that the congregation I'd been hoping to be appointed to had met all the qualifications to become an Extension Congregation and she wanted to appoint me to that fulltime pastorate.
Wy'east UU Congregation was a very new congregation in Portland OR, about 60 members, meeting on Sunday afternoons at 4 p.m. in a United Methodist church where they were renting space. I'd decided I'd like to be an Extension minister and serve a new congregation or one where they had been lay-led for many years and were just beginning to work with a minister. I figured it would be a good place to begin ministry and I really wanted to go to Portland. Of all the locations in the PNW, Portland was top of my list.
At the same time as Margaret's call was coming in, the radio began blaring the news that there had been shots fired at a local high school, one of the schools in the district where I had lived and worked for 25 years. I knew staff and students there. In one ear, Margaret was telling me about Wy'east and in the other ear, I was getting the news about the Columbine High School massacre.
What a juxtaposition of joy and shock! I thanked Margaret and told her I'd better find out what was going on; she was as shocked as I was at this terrible event. Within an hour or so, I was at the Columbine UU church, near the high school, with other UU seminarians hoping to be helpful as the neighborhood reeled with this news. We didn't know if any Columbine UU teens were involved nor what had happened. Joel Miller, CUUC's minister, was at the school all afternoon to offer his support, while we opened the doors of the church for any neighborhood residents who wanted to come in.
What an inaugural to the life of ministry! There's scarcely an adult in the nation who isn't aware of what went down at Columbine that awful day. The reverberations from that day have affected Jefferson County Schools, Jefferson County, and all of Colorado, perhaps the entire country. And it was this awareness of how quickly tragedy can strike and how ministry skills can be helpful in a crisis that I carried forth from that day.
At Iliff School of Theology, during the next days, we learned that some of our fellow seminarians had lost teens from their youth groups in the shootings. We learned that our seminary colleagues needed huge support, that in some cases they would bury one or more teens. We were together in our anger at the public memorial service when Franklin Graham, Billy Graham's son and heir, totally ignored the fact that there were Jewish students murdered and prayed for all in Jesus' name, exhorting the crowd to turn to Christ so that this kind of thing wouldn't happen any more.
Columbine happened during the same school year that Matthew Shepherd was beaten to a pulp and hung on a Wyoming fence to die. Faced with tragedies this enormous and this significant to a population like our seminary's, we reeled under the expectation that these events had to have some meaning, that we as pastors and preachers had to be able to rise to the occasion, offer comfort and answers and conduct the rites that would enable some sort of healing to begin.
One month later, I graduated from Iliff, was ordained by Jefferson Unitarian Church, and a few days later was told by my physician that she thought I ought to have an echocardiogram to diagnose the heart murmur I'd always thought was benign. My first reaction was "why would I want to do that---there's probably nothing wrong since I have never had any symptoms" and my second was "well, Dad had heart trouble and so has brother Buz, so I'd better get it checked out."
Two weeks later, on the very day I was to close on the sale of my house, the technician reading my ECG pictures said, "I'm not supposed to tell you this, but since you're moving soon, you need to know that you have a fairly significant hole in your heart, called an atrial septal defect. Lucky for you they have great cardiologists in Portland."
I moved to Portland another two weeks later and prepared to have open heart surgery and my first year as a minister all at the same time.