In the months following the attacks, church attendance generally rose as a community sought comfort. In the decade since the shooting, some of the community’s wounds have healed; others have not. Events planned this weekend and on Monday to commemorate the shooting will serve as further reminders but will also provide the opportunity for a community to take another step forward through faith.
View from the Pulpit
This has been seen firsthand by Rev. Doug Slaughter. Slaughter is senior pastor at Heritage United Methodist Church in Littleton. He moved to the community as part of a standard re-assignment in 2005.
Among Heritage’s congregants are families who lived through the horror of April 20, 1999 and its aftermath, including young adults who were Columbine students at the time. The prevailing sentiment of the church is to look forward rather than look back.
“For the most part it is something everyone wants to move past,” Slaughter said. “It is not something people want to focus on or build their lives around.”
Young couples at the church seek the same advice as anywhere else on topics of marriage, families and life challenges, Slaughter said. The shootings are rarely the focus of the conversation, but they are still discussed.
“I would say it is the typical type of talks you would expect,” Slaughter said. “For the Columbine experience to come up as part of the conversation isn’t unusual, but it’s only one thread of the whole conversation.”
The most poignant talks happen with children in the congregation. There is strong interest in making sure kids are listened to, their fears and frustrations discussed through a Christian lens.
“I experience (the aftermath of the shootings) most in the keen interest on kids,” Slaughter said. “Using Christian education and Christian social networks to help children and youth is a much higher priority here than it might be elsewhere. Our programs and ministries are very intentional in making sure no one is left out of the conversation. Helping people talk about their feelings gives their faith a higher value and intensity from those experiences.”
Sunday’s sermon includes prayer concerns regarding the anniversary. It’s not the sole focus of the message.
“We will acknowledge the experience. It is our prayer life and God’s light that is moving us forward.”
Christian Counseling Challenges
The long-term work after Columbine is also shared by counseling professionals. Those at the school that day are likely to feel the longest-lasting impact. Proximity isn’t the only factor and this milestone anniversary if a perfect example.
“The fact that this year is the 10th anniversary brings more media notice than did the 7th, but only because we tend to take note of certain milestones more than others,” said Gail Schra, a licensed clinical social worker with Colorado Springs-based Focus on the Family. Schra worked for a community mental health center which sent staff to the Columbine area after the shootings.
“Media stories noting the anniversary will cause those most directly affected to be reminded more than in the years in between, but the emotional impact, then and now, are largely the same,” he said. “Loss and its after effects go on for a long time.”
Feeling abandoned by God is a common experience in mass tragedies. There is no boilerplate template for helping people reconnect with their faith in the wake of tragedy, Schra said.
“The counseling process is unique to each individual, so I cannot describe a path that is always helpful,” he said. “For someone affected by trauma, they should seek help in finding a counselor who not only knows how to address the emotional consequences of trauma, but who also shares their Christian beliefs allowing them to help the trauma victim to recover both emotionally and spiritually.”
There is also no set deadline for when the community returns to a point where Columbine isn’t synonymous with mass murder.
“The fact that Columbine was a large-scale tragedy will linger in the hearts and minds of all who recall the day it happened,” Schra said. “Time does tend to dull the impact of ‘where’ it happened except for the immediate victims and family members. As other tragic events occur in our country and the world, the uniqueness of Columbine tends to diminish.
“There will no doubt be memorial services recalling and honoring those who were lost and wounded, which is part of what also helps everyone to both remember as well as move on with their lives.”
School District Looks Forward
The most prominent memorials will take place Sunday night with a candlelight vigil and a community-wide event Monday afternoon at Clement Park. The park is near the high school and was where survivors were evacuated to the day of the shootings.
“We always try to hit home that a lot has changed,” said Melissa Reeves, communications representative for Jeffco Public Schools. “One of the phrases you hear a lot is that Columbine is not our legacy, but it is our history.”
Reeves said the recovery over the past decade has proved Klebold and Harris failed in their attempt at homegrown terrorism.
“The day of the Columbine shootings does not represent what the community is,” she said. “The shooters meant to hurt the community and for students to live in fear of coming to school where they should feel safest of all. It did the opposite. It made many in the community realize the importance of being supportive of one another.”
That support doesn’t necessarily extend to the many that still see Columbine as a touchstone for teen violence. Case in point, the district was flooded with inquiries following the March 11 shooting deaths of 15 students at a school in Winnenden, Germany.
“I’ve seen both ends of the spectrum,” Reeves said. “I’ve seen people really effected who have had a direct connection to the victims that day. I know there are people who are really angry and want the media to leave the community alone and stop seeing Columbine as just a tragedy. There are many people that love the school and the community and feel it a great place to raise their kids, and that hasn’t changed.”
Local churches remain an integral part of the Columbine story regardless of perspectives.
“Immediately after the shootings the community really came together through the churches,” Reeves said. “The churches were the first place where many people truly realized people were gone when they weren’t part of those services. It was a turning point for people to begin discussing about putting aside petty differences and reaching out to one another.”
Heritage United Methodist Church: http://www.umheritage.com/
Focus on the Family: http://www.focusonthefamily.com/
Columbine High School: http://sc.jeffco.k12.co.us/education/school/school.php
Columbine Memorial: http://www.columbinememorial.org/