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Summer/Fall 1999
Volume 4 Number 2

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Reflections on Columbine

by Dwight R. Blackstock

Dwight R. Blackstock('71) is the pastor of Grace Presbyterian Church in Littleton, Colorado

April 20, 1999, is the day that the impossible happened in my quiet suburban community. At lunchtime I walked the couple of blocks from my church to home, and turned on the Blackstock.jpg (3316 bytes)television while I fixed lunch. I could not believe the pictures that came on the screen: SWAT teams preparing to storm a local high school; distraught teenagers crying and telling stories of murder; frantic parents searching for children. One young woman’s cry still haunts me, "Kids are supposed to be safe in school."

I found myself crying and praying most of the afternoon. Relief and horror were mixed together. At one point I made a mental note of who from our congregation might be involved, and for several hours I believed that our own people were "safe." It turned out that I was wrong. A member of our congregation who is a teacher was instrumental in keeping approximately sixty students from harm, while a member of our youth group escaped shortly after the shooting started. And the grandson of one of our members died while ushering other students to safety.

In a matter of hours my life and the lives of everyone in our community were turned upside down. The unanswerable questions kept coming rapid fire. Why here? Where was God? Why didn’t God do something? Can the murderers ever be forgiven? By whom?

All of a sudden it seemed that everyone was turning to the church and its pastors for answers. Of course answers were hard to come by, and very quickly most of the pastors I know in Littleton were shell-shocked by the extent of the tragedy and the needs of our community. Many of us began to exhibit symptoms of traumatic stress syndrome. We were extremely fatigued, had short-term memory problems, and anger was only just barely under the surface

I officiated at a funeral service for the grandson of one our members, and the experience remains a jumble of images and feelings for me. I have officiated at funerals for murder victims before, but never for one so young, and never in such a public way. More than two thousand people filled every part of our church building and grounds where we had sound or video capacity. We even put speakers on the roof so that the more than six hundred who stood outside could hear even if they could not see.

In that moment our staff had the awesome responsibility of standing in the place of Christ for our community. We had to speak a word of hope in the resurrection to many who had never heard, along with the hundreds who knew the story well. But at the same time we had to speak personally to a family who discovered their son’s death by seeing his picture in the newspaper. I was never so aware of the duality between my prophetic and priestly roles.

I attempted to reframe the images for the family from that of a dead boy on the sidewalk to that of a young man who died living out one of the principles of Christ. Danny died holding the door for others so they could exit the cafeteria. And the Scripture verse that kept running through my mind was, "Greater love has no one than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends."

In the midst of all of the pressure to answer the unanswerable questions, deal with media attention, and attend to my personal grief, along with grief of our community, I learned something about the church. The church of Jesus Christ really is a caring community, which extends love and support in times of need. I received numerous telephone calls from friends, colleagues, classmates, and strangers. We received hundreds of faxes, cards, and letters, all of them saying "We care," "We’re praying for you," "Let us know how to help." I even had a call from a complete stranger who said, "If you need us we will jump in the car and we can be there in two days." The Presbyterian Church USA sent a disaster team to help us process our grief. The outpouring of support enabled us to get through the initial stages of the tragedy. I have never felt so supported in ministry, and in that support I felt the power and nearness of God.

Even so, the healing must go on, for our community, certainly for the victims of the shooters and their families, and also for those who tried to being a word of faith into the tragedy. Even writing this has stirred feelings of grief and sadness, which I thought I had resolved.

Dwight R. Blackstock (’71B) is the pastor of Grace Presbyterian Church in Littleton, Colorado.

Copyright 1999 Princeton Theological Seminary
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