Reflections of a Littleton Pastor’s Experience of Columbine (Ten years later)

I live ten minutes away from Columbine High School.   Ten years ago today, we had just moved to this beautiful mountain state from Illinois to serve as a pastor in Colorado. 


The week of April 20, 1999 was supposed to be a vacation week for my family.  But Sunday night, the night before we were to leave, my wife said that for some reason  she did not feel right about leaving.  So we cancelled the trip and I had a free week off.


The next day, like everyone else, we heard about the shooting on the news.  Only for us this national event was in a school you can see from a hill in our neighborhood.   So I drove over.  As a pastor, they let me past all of the police check points.   When I got two blocks from the high school I parked the car and walked as close as I could only to see what looked like federal troops moving in formation around the school.  I quickly realized I needed to get out of there.


I was instructed to go to a nearby grade school where Columbine parents and students were gathering.  When I arrived it was a surreal site.  There was shock, weeping and students were instructed to go to the front of the stage, so that parents could find out if their children were still alive.  It was then that I volunteered as a grief counselor.   I had never seen anything like it.


Meanwhile, other members of my pastoral team went into action.  One pastor went to the hospital to minister to families whose students had been shot.  A youth worker went into action with our own students.   Community prayer services were planned.


When I arrived home that night, I got a call from the governor’s office.  Unknown to me, the governor’s press secretary was a member of my church.  She called and said that CNN was looking for a pastor to be on location at Columbine at 5.00 AM the next morning with the governor for an interview.  They could not find a pastor willing to be out that early.  So I agreed.


There were many incredible pastors working behind the scenes all during that week.  Some were working closely with the families.   Some were setting up meetings to help young people process what was going on.   Some were doing apologetic work.  Others were walking among the floods of people who were now descending on Columbine High, (along with every news outlet in the world) to be a presence among the people.   Little did I know that my role that week was to be a media voice.


After I had said “yes” to the interview, late that night someone from CNN called me without telling me his name, wanting to make sure I would be a credible Christian voice.  He was a believer, working in the CNN hierarchy.  I am sure his call was his own doing.  But it reminded me that there are believers behind the scenes even in the news media.


For one entire week, I was interviewed, usually in media tents by the memorial wall of flowers.  It went from CNN, to NBC, to Christian radio, to MSNBC, and  back and forth.  To my amazement,  I now believe God had prompted my wife to cancel our vacation, and clear my week for this task.  For one entire week, I had more opportunities to publicly yet sensitively name the name of Christ and point to spiritual realities than I’ve ever had in my entire lifetime as a pastor.  At the end of the week, that door of spiritual opportunity closed just as quickly as it opened.


Most interesting to me were some of the interviewers.    There was the one network who said that they wanted to interview me  about pastoral care for students.  Yet when the camera turned on live, the first question was a hostile toned “where was God when those two students opened fire on their fellow classmates?”  I gulped, asked God for on-the-spot wisdom, learned a thing or two about the media, and spoke.


Then there was the political talk show where the talking heads in Washington were coolly  trying to blame the whole thing on guns.  There they were in their plush studios.  I am sitting on location with weeping students and mourners behind me.    My response to them, in a nutshell, is that people did not expect such terrible deeds to be done in beautiful Colorado, in a wealthy community, in a showpiece suburban high school.  That was the shock of Columbine.   But I said that while guns, and entertainment choices all played a part, the heart of the problem of Columbine is the problem of the human heart.   It can happen anywhere.  When you ignore God, fill your heart with violence, given what we know of our sinful hearts, how can we not expect a bitter fruit?  Columbine is bigger than a media, or a gun, or a negligent parenting problem.  It is a deep spiritual problem.   


The founding of our nation was predicated on the reality of self-government.  This self- government was to be rooted in the restraints of morality and religion (Christianity).  When these restraints are removed, our founders had no confidence that our national life would prosper.   Indeed, the evidence is telling.  


On this 10th anniversary of Columbine, we stand back, and what do we see?   Sadly, our nation has experienced Columbine over and over and over again.  The number of mass shootings since then is troubling:  Atlanta, Washington, Chicago, Birchwood Wisconsin, Brookfield, Wisconsin, Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania,  Virginia Tech, Carnation, Washington, Dekalb, Illinois, Alger Washington, Covina, California, Geneva County Alabama, North Carolina, Binghamton New York, Graham, Washington.   


I wish we had learned a thing or two since Columbine, but I fear we have not.



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  • Kelly Pankratz says:

    Don, we were in Cambodia when we heard the news of Columbine. I immediately thought of you and your family. I had no idea what opportunities God had brought your way. I’m thankful you were sensitive to the Spirit working in Christina’s heart to cancel your trip. I also appreciate the wisdom you shared with the media regarding the condition of man’s heart.

    • dwsweeting says:

      Kelly, thanks for your comments. It was one of those amazing weeks that you never forget, with extraordinary tragedy and extraordinary opportunity.

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