I was entering my house from a day at school when I heard a message being left on our answering machine. It was my youth minister from church.
…”I don’t know if you’ve heard, but there’s been a shooting at a high school in Columbine, Colorado. I’m calling folks in the youth group to see if you want to go to a vigil in downtown Seattle”.
It was Tuesday, April 20, 1999. I was in 8th grade (14 years old) and I quickly turned on the news. I will never forget the images I saw, that we all saw. We saw youth, although to my 14 year old eyes, I saw “big” high schoolers, running to their parents, crying! We saw high school students hanging from the windows, trying to escape. We saw images that never needed to be seen again of guns and bodies. And as the days went on we saw security footage and learned more about what had gone on. We learned about the shooters and learned that they had been outcasts. They had been bullied and been excluded.
The recent events have sent me back to that day of coming home and hearing the voice message. I feel as though I am reliving my 14 year old self’s reaction to Columbine and wondering how our youth are processing these events in Connecticut. I have spent the last few days reflecting on Columbine and realizing now how it shaped the way I grew up. As we all know this event will change the way our children will grow up. Although this event had not happened “to me”, I, along with all of us, were affected. I remember the first time we went to our school library being a bit afraid, since that’s where some students were shot and killed in Columbine. I remember there were stories of the shooters asking people if they believed in God, and those that said “yes” were killed. I wondered, ‘would I lie if faced with that situation? or would I have said ‘yes’?, since I did.’
As I stood at that vigil in downtown Seattle, I remember realizing that we had a responsibility to not let people feel so lonely and so angry that it would come to this kind of violence. It was up to all of us to share with each other their worth and make sure everyone knew that they mattered and belonged! And… what I know now as an adult is what my church and my youth minister taught me that day. My youth leader called me to tell me the news and invited me to a prayer vigil. Our youth group and our parents and our youth leaders traveled to this vigil to pray for the victims, AND the shooters. They were ALL in our prayers. My church taught me about forgiveness, hope, prayer and love.
So… fast forward 14 years and now I’m the youth minister at my church. And it’s Friday, December 14th and there I was, I was faced with the same news (only this time it was even younger children) I see my 14 year old self in the youth that I work with and I know what to do. My church taught me about love, prayer, forgiveness, and hope and I was going to help our youth through this the same as my youth minister and church did for me. Amazingly our Christmas Party was scheduled for that day. We played games and laughed! And the last 15 minutes, we held candles that we lit for each other. And we sang “Silent Night”. We opened up the circle to prayers and there were many hopes lifted for all the things that this season brings up: lost loved ones, homelessness, friendships, less stress, celebration of marriage for ALL, prayers for the continued struggles for GLBTQ youth and adults who still can’t tell their families, lost pets and prayers for Newtown, Connecticut victims and for kids who don’t feel safe in public places anymore.
This to me is why youth group and church community matters! We need a place to share our joys and a place to cry and to share our deep struggles. My passion for inclusivity comes from my own story of being bullied and made fun of, from Columbine and the story of the shooters, and from the stories I hear from youth and how they feel like they don’t matter.
I heard on the radio today that there is an epidemic in our culture and it is a “lack of hope”. “It’s a lack of hope in themselves” she said. And I wonder, how can our message that GOD loves all and that because you were born you have WORTH and that you MATTER can reach all our children, teens, young adults, and adults of all ages? This message is one I heard in my faith community and it is one I hope all feel in our church community! It is a message we really can’t hear enough or say enough to those around us – not just our family or friends, but more powerfully to those we don’t know!
We are all struggling to make sense of something senseless. And we move forward in a way we don’t know how, in a world that has shifted. And we “look for the helpers” as Fred Rogers said! And we look to those who are being excluded or bullied, and we stand FOR them and WITH them! Love just won in an election around gay marriage. Let’s let LOVE WIN in all aspects – in health care, in gun control, in media, in our communities, in our families, and within! LET’S LET LOVE WIN!
Picture of me and youth group friends from 8th or 9th grade