The Children Strike Back

By From the July 1999 issue

Will Columbine change America? Maybe so— though the most significant changes may be inspired by the example of three girls, two of whom are dead.

Cassie Bernal was asked if she believed in God, and after an affirmative answer was shot in the temple. Valeen Schnurr, having witnessed that shooting, was asked the same question. Already seriously wounded, she too answered in the affirmative, yet escaped with her life. Rachel Scott, according to recent press reports, had been shot in the leg. When asked if she believed in God, she answered that she did, and was shot through the head. Cassie Bernal's story made its way around the world, and she quickly became a martyr. The stories of the other girls are catching up.

I called the Rev. Bill Oudemolen, senior pastor at the Foothills Baptist Church (membership: 2,500), to see how the killings had affected his world. He had buried student John Tomblin. He had seen how students had reacted to Cassie, Valeen, and Rachel. He had also spent time with reporters and had heard the word "evil" raised from its slumber, a word falling from many tongues since Columbine, including Vice President Al Gore's.

Oudemolen, it should be said, is not a man to water down his Christianity. A few years ago I went to a funeral service at his church for a family friend, a mid-thirties mother of three, at which Oudemolen preached that the deceased would not come back even if she could, because she was in a better place. "I made the same point as the funeral for John," he says. "I was criticized, but that's what the family wanted. They're very evangelical. That's the kind of people we are. The title of my sermon the Sunday after the killings was 'Satan planned April 20. So did God.' Good and evil—we believe in both."

Oudemolen says he took some flack from a Salon magazine correspondent for saying that the shooters "were gripped by the power of Satan," but overall he noted a "surprising sensitivity" and "respectfulness" on the part of the press. "I know it sounds odd, but when they were broadcasting the funeral I felt like we were a team. Some of these people were crying. This really struck home."

There was a surge in church-going after the killings. "Kids were going from one service to the next." Cassie Bernal's case has caused much soul-searching, not only by the young. "What these girls did was pose the most penetrating questions a person can pose: What do you really believe in? Do you believe in anything so strongly that you would die for it?"

As of now, few have dared to call these three girls religious fanatics, though the brand of religion they practiced is typically denounced as fanatical and a threat to the highest current virtue: Tolerance. Yet one assumes that their heroism for principle, and especially the inspirational effect it has had on youthful religious believers, will not be forgiven in all quarters. We live in a different world after Columbine, but not that different.


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About the Author

Dave Shiflett is a writer in Midlothian, Virginia.