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Congregations gather to deal with the violence

By Jean Torkelson
News Staff Writer

After the rampage, faith struck back.

It happened Sunday at 7 a.m. Mass, where a Catholic community has lost two children and has two more hospitalized.

It happened down the road with a church family of mainline Protestants, who have one child recovering.

It happened as Christian Evangelicals worshiped shoulder to shoulder in a place with newly sinister connotations -- a suburban school gymnasium.

And it happened at Denver's Baha'i Center, home to a Persian religion dedicated to finding world peace, but which struggled Sunday to make sense of what happened in Colorado.

The prevailing message was that God and faith itself came under attack at Columbine High.

One girl, Cassie Bernall, had been killed for saying she believed in God.

The Rev. Ken Leone told his Sunday flock at St. Frances Cabrini Church that survivor Valeen Schnurr told him from her hospital bed that she, too, was shot by a laughing gunman when she said she believed in God.

In coming weeks, the Rev. Leone said, "Psychologists, police, sociologists will all add two cents about why this happened, but in another sense, the cause is very simple -- we are losing God.

"Complete contempt for human life in the young is not an accident. It's what we create when we live a contradiction. We cannot systemically kill the unborn, the infirm, those in prisons, glorify brutality and then expect our children to build a culture of life."

For parishioner Marge Barry, brutality has a personal touch.

Some years ago, her daughter-in-law was murdered by an intruder. Last week her granddaughter, Brittany, hid in Columbine High School for four hours after the carnage.

"I just think we need to do something to get prayer back in schools," Barry said. "God is alive in this country, and we need to make a stand for him. We have to let kids experience their faith."

At Columbine United Church, the Rev. Steve Poos-Benson, with deliberate, terrible precision, read a condition report on a young parishioner: "Patrick Ireland is a young man who fell out of the window, shot once in the head, once in the foot."

Ireland was the church's only victim -- "Only physical victim," corrected member George Kinner, in a whisper.

Others were in pain, too.

"I woke up Saturday in a fit of rage," Poos-Benson said. "I was shoveling snow, but I didn't really have to shovel it because it was melting around me."

Under the irony of rainbow-colored Easter banners, Poos-Benson greeted visiting supporters, including United Methodist Bishop Mary Ann Swenson, the Rev. Lucia Guzman of the Council of Churches and other dignitaries.

The sad pageantry of mourning filled the vestibule. Flowers. Cards. Messages from all over the world. Even T-shirts selling for $10. Mid-service, Kinner abruptly walked to the vestibule, grabbed a T-shirt and put it on under his tweed jacket.

"In support," he explained, his voice breaking.

Several miles away, a roll call of the dead resonated through the gymnasium at Trailblazer Elementary School in Highlands Ranch.

A bell tolled for each victim as the flock at Castlewood Evangelical Free Church stood silently, surrounded by basketball hoops and cheery crayon cutouts.

Late last week, the Rev. Tim Andersen had scrapped a long-planned sermon on the effects of Y2K. Those once-dire prospects seemed, well, almost cartoonish compared to the question, "How can the heart of a 17-, 18-year-old dream up this horrific thing?"

For clues, Andersen, 49, saw links to days of long hair, rebellion, and the battle cry of his generation, "Do your own thing."

"This wasn't an attack against jocks, minorities and people who make others feel uncomfortable," Andersen said. "The reality is this stubborn resistance is toward God himself. God's morality, his desires are seen as restraints. The world itself is responding -- 'Hey, I want to do what I want to do.'

And last Tuesday, killing was what two teens wanted to do.

Miles away near downtown Denver, members of the Baha'i faith meditated during a service that, ironically, had been dedicated beforehand to children.

"This is a spiritual disease we are seeing," said the Iranian-born Shahrokh Sadighian. "The biggest challenge for America is racial harmony. I think God has chosen America as a testing tube for the whole world, for living in harmony.

"We have learned to accept each other, but not to really love one another. Until we spiritually transform ourselves, peace will not happen."

As if to underline the vulnerability of childhood, 7-year-old Crystal Hoffman bounced to the microphone and, without accompaniment, sang a song in a high, clear voice.

Then Linda Pomeroy rose to read the counsels from the early, 18th century founders of Baha'i. On Sunday they sounded eerily prescient.

"Take the utmost care to give your children high ideals and goals," she read, "so that they will not be defiled by passion ... and be harmful to others."

April 26, 1999

©Copyright Denver Publishing Co.

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