“Thee, thee and thee, but not me,” Dr. Kubler-Ross used to say about death and dying.It happens to everyone else but not to me. So it is with tragedy and lament in the ministry. Things happen in other communities, but not here; things happen to other pastors but not to me. And then it happens.
Most Americans are not practiced at lament. We don’t know what to do when faced with communal damage like an Oklahoma City bombing or natural disaster. Most pastors are acquainted with grief in others and grief as part of the natural cycle of life. We are “word givers” and“happening persons” and in control. And then it happens.
I was late for an appointment with my family physician, a member of the congregationI was serving in Littleton, Colorado, on April 20, 1999. We took monthly walks around a lake next toColumbine High School. On the fateful Columbine day I was driving in front ofthe school when I noticed a police car. Then I noticed hundreds of teenagers jumping a fence across from the high school. By the time I reached the doctor at the local library on the other side of Clement Park, which lies in between,ambulances and other sirens were picking up in volume. It was about 11:35 a.m.
I suggestedthat we find out what was happening at the school, as the doctor had a son inattendance. My son and daughter had both graduated from Columbine. He was adoctor; I was wearing clerics; I thought we could be of some use. When asked,one young lady said, “a person dressed like you is shooting people.”
As we approached we found the principal, some coaches, and office personnel running from the school. “Back, back,” they yelled. “The police want a wider perimeter.” Being German and not too bright I said, “I know a back way in.”There we saw a policeman, gun in hand, put a young man down in the spread-eagle position. I suggested that we not go any further. The doctor’s feelings were frozen. We went back to the car, called our church about a mile away, and learned that his son had run there and was safe.
That afternoon several pastors from the community were present at the library where children first gathered who could not make it home. Another pastor and I wound up at Leawood Elementary School where parents and their children were reunited.Later the school system had an army of counselors brought in to be with parents.
Some families were not reunited until late in the afternoon, as the children were locked in closets and classrooms in the high school while water sprinklers went off, bells rang and their imaginations went wild. The drama of Coach Sanders dying while looking at pictures of his children was played out. Students holding compresses against his bullet holes were forced to leave by the SWAT teams who brought no paramedics with them. Those courageous teenagers later felt guilty that they had abandoned the popular coach to die.
APresbyterian pastor said, “Don, we have to go and be with the bodies.” “Why?” Iasked. The answer, “Because the parents would want us to be.” So we made ourway to Columbine High.
We met a huge policeman from my congregation who said that no one was going into the school because there were bombs. He was angry that SWAT teams stayed outside the school for four or five hours before going in. He had sons atColumbine. Why were they holding back? As it turned out, Dylan Klebold and EricHarris had killed themselves almost five hours before. Police departments did not have a common radio frequency and coordination was difficult.
ThePresbyterian pastor said, “Don, we better go back to our churches. People will be coming tonight.”
How many dead? Ten? Twenty? Thirty? How many wounded? The sheriff was not a professional and information was confusing, exaggerated and often wrong for the next few days.
At my church all the pews were gone for refinishing, as we were at the end of a 1.7million dollar building program for a new sanctuary and narthex. The hallways,rooms and fellowship hall were filled with ten or twenty thousand items of children’s clothing and furniture for our annual children’s clothing sale.Where do we go? What do we do? What am I to say?
I knew we had to have the Eucharist available . . . bread for the journey. We had to have something tangible, comforting, familiar. I recalled a book on my shelf with Holocaust prayers and liturgies. I found one liturgy that was useful with minor changes, and asked my secretary to reproduce it quickly. Folding chairs were set up in the sanctuary.
I was setting up the altar, thinking of hymns, and trying to figure out what to say when an interesting young man whom I had confirmed a couple of years before called me over. The friend with him had purple spiked hair. “Pastor, I want to tell you what happened here today. Day after day, week after week, month after month you are picked on, then you finally go over the edge. I don’t condone what happened here today, but that is what happened.” And he walked away. He was about 80-85% right.
I don’t remember what we sang. I don’t remember what I said. I served theEucharist, “the body of Christ for you.”
A project engineer in my congregation kept saying “Klebold” to me. He lived next door to the Klebolds and saw police and reporters at the house. Finally I recognized the name and said, “If they need me, have them call.” The Klebolds had attended the church for about five or six months several years before, and we saw them at a parishioner’s home each Christmas. Tom Klebold was raisedLutheran in Ohio and attended Wittenberg College. He is a geophysicist and gifted as an artist. Sue Klebold is Jewish, from a leading family in Ohio. She is gracious, warm and very caring.
The next day everyone was invited to Light of theWorld Catholic Church, where President Clinton later met with the victims’ families. The priest and I were friends. The Presbyterian pastor and I were asked to speak. Members of the county school board, the principal, and the overwhelmed superintendent also spoke. Faculty, parents, students, reporters,and police filled the large church with others outside. I was last to speak. I said something like the following:
The weeks and months, maybe even years ahead will be painful. Lawyers will keep this alive far beyond a point of healing. There will be a search for a target to blame. That may not happen. But I do know this, God raises up and God will raise up this community.That is a promise.
Among the many different kinds of T-shirts that appeared, on some was the message“God will raise us up.”
ClementPark, next to the high school, filled up with satellite trucks and reporters’ tents. There were photos, mourners, and enough flowers to rival PrincessDiana’s funeral. Crisis junkies from all over the country showed up. Counselors, legitimate and not so legitimate, were present. Evangelicals preyed on mourning students, telling them to trust Jesus and they would feel better.The county sheriff issued bizarre and erroneous statements. It took a few days before body counts of the dead were accurate.
A policewoman from my congregation had to crawl through bloody water to help find expended shells. Bombs were discovered and destroyed. One large bomb, if detonated, would have killed hundreds of students hiding in a room above it.Fortunately the timer was defective. Lights in the school stayed on all night for months because it was a crime scene. A window with a bullet hole in it and blood running down was visible from the street for weeks.
On the Thursday two days after the shooting I conducted the funeral for a 19-year-old young woman who had died of copper poisoning. The pressure of scores of young people grieving for their friend, combined with the Klebold funeral on Saturday, added to my eventual numbness.
OnThursday, April 22, Tom Klebold called and asked for help. Would I do a funeral for his son? It was to be a private, secret affair, with a few trusted friends.The media circus had begun, and Tom, on the best of days, is a private person.
Almost seventeen years before I had been asked to do a funeral for a (non-member)thirty-year-old who died gay, alcoholic, drug addicted, stabbed and left in a gutter in a city far away. I had thought the parents would be relieved at his death. How wrong! The father’s grief was almost overwhelming. For that funeralI had used II Samuel 18:33, relating King David’s love for Absalom despite his dividing the kingdom and causing many deaths. That would be my text for this funeral as well.
I sent my wife with another Lutheran pastor to the funeral on a circuitous route.I wanted them there as a reality check. I was becoming overloaded emotionally.I went with a Denver policeman in case I ran into reporters.
Upon arrival at the funeral home I met Tom Klebold and his other son Byron. We were formal with each other, but he was grateful for my presence. In a room whereDylan’s body was in a coffin, I met his mother, Sue. She came into my arms and sobbed and shook. I held her, but could feel nothing, as I was numb with overload. Dylan lay in the casket surrounded with Beanie Babies.
A family lawyer came. Long-time friends arrived; one couple was from my church.Tom’s sister and brother-in-law were the only other family members. As I walked into the incredibly tension-filled room, I knew that the service I had prepared was not appropriate. I said, “Let’s just sit and talk for a while. Who wants to begin?”
One family jumped in and talked about how much they loved Dylan. Another said what great parents the Klebolds were. The family from my church related how great it was to have Dylan at their house and how he wrestled with their son. Nothing made sense. Then Dylan’s father Tom said, “Who the hell gave a gun to my son?All we have in the house is a BB gun to shoot the woodpeckers. We are against guns.” Susan said, “How could he be anti-Semitic? He is half Jewish as I am allJewish.” So it went for a half an hour or more. Finally it was time to do liturgy, read scripture, offer prayers and give a brief sermon about parents’ love, which is as faithful as God’s love.
Onthe way out I asked the lawyer how should I respond to the media. He said,“Tell them what you saw here today. Tell them about these good people.”
For the next two days I did just that, and then I had to stop because being a celebrity becomes an ego trip at the expense of other things. There were Sunday sermons, meetings, Lutheran Social Services trying to be of help, the chaos of the building program, phone calls, hundreds of letters (Klebolds got over 4000letters of support, and many were sent via the church or my home). People called or wrote whom I had not heard from since high school. There was tension in the church, fear, students doubled up at another high school, chaos in the news and of course the funerals. One Lutheran was seriously wounded and within a few months her mother committed suicide in a gun shop. Crisis teams came into the community again.
One student reportedly confessed her faith before she was shot. The stepfather of another student victim milked the situation for all it was worth. A couple ofmy student members had been next to students that were killed, but were not harmed themselves.
The best basketball player in the state was a member of my congregation; he hanged himself a year later because of the trauma. We borrowed the Catholic church to hold an ecumenical funeral service for the whole community, and twenty-five hundred attended.
Letters from Rev. John Tietjen and former Bishop Chilstrom came loaded with interesting information. Phone calls from rabbis, jail chaplains, and other ministers came to the house. The media tried like crazy to manipulate me to get to the Klebolds. I was used to deaths one at a time, not fifteen plus two more later by suicide.
The new young governor felt that there needed to be a public ceremony of some sort so people could resume some normalcy. About 40,000 people gathered in a theater parking lot across from the park and school. A rabbi made sensitive comments,but an Evangelical Free Church pastor and Franklin Graham made comments that were insensitive and hurtful to any who were not right-wing Christians. As president of the Denver Area Interfaith Clergy Association I had to respond publicly on behalf of non-Christian members. I was quoted in the newspapers assaying “we all got hit over the head with Jesus.” I received much support as well as hate mail for that comment.
Just prior to all of this I had asked an associate pastor to resign. In anger and hurt she wrote a resignation letter accusing me of physical abuse. In the middle of the chaos I planned for the dedication of the new sanctuary. June 6,1999 saw the Lutheran bishop of the Rocky Mountain Synod, an Episcopal priest,a Roman Catholic priest, a UCC pastor and a Presbyterian pastor all distributing communion together. It was to be a table where Jesus was the head,not Luther.
Our family physician and his family left the church for another congregation.Several other parishioners also started to make plans to exit. And the poorest decision I made was to follow through on a sabbatical I had planned for two years and started the day after the new sanctuary was dedicated.
By the time I came back in the fall, quite a few families had left, some stating they had to take sides with their neighbors. Forty-six families in the congregation had children directly affected and wanted help for their trauma. I had left two well-seasoned pastors in charge during the sabbatical, but that was not enough. Upon my return, almost all wanted to be visited. In the meantime three women contracted breast cancer and two men were dying of cancer.
One could divide any room in the community over the matter of fifteen or thirteen crosses. Thirteen was the number of dead not counting Klebold and Harris. A kind carpenter from Illinois planted fifteen crosses on a hill behind Columbine, but a victim’s father took two down. Later when a church youth group planted fifteen trees he cut two of them down.
I approached my bishop and his assistant in the fall and said that the church was no longer mine. They asked if I wanted to move. Yes, I felt, to another church.No, I felt, from our beautiful home and friends. At a Thanksgiving Eve ServiceI got a standing ovation from 450 people. Christmas was great. But by MaundyThursday 2000, while I spoke to 3000 people at the one-year anniversary gathering, several people were meeting in secret, plotting to ask for my resignation after Easter. The annual meeting in May became ugly with women saying things like, “He is a good preacher, but a very bad man.”
I had been “reality checking” with my text study group and a therapist each week. However, it was over. Lament had moved into my ministry. I had to grieve a congregation that for the most part liked me and I liked them. Having to sell my house, find another job, discard items intrinsic to our children’s childhood, and move caused great personal lament.
As has been the case for many a pastor, the good people never figure it out until it is too late. Those who have unresolved issues and create unhealthy projections from them are far more active and efficient –and they manage to find each other for support. “Clergy Killers.” “Alligators.”“Christians are the only people who shoot their wounded.”
Having related briefly what happened, let me look at lament in this context.
The street in front of Columbine High school was a main thoroughfare and was sealed off for a long time. People would say, “I want my street back” as a lament for“I want things to go back to normal.”
Very little is taught in seminary or Clinical Pastoral Education about public trauma. We learn how to handle personal trauma, but only since the OklahomaCity bombing has the journey of public trauma been addressed. Numerous lawsuits and the news media act as scab scratchers that prevent public wounds from healing. Some people fall apart immediately; others take several years to have breakdowns. Viet Nam veterans found their trauma reawakened by their children being under gunfire.
Fundamentalists used the time and especially the anniversary to try and convert others. They tried to make the message “they are with Jesus” a solution to make people feel better rather than taking the long walk with those who were grieving.
Personally,my stance was trying to be a non-anxious presence, although for several years I was full of information that I really did not want to know. But people want fixing in trauma and if they are not fixed, someone has to be blamed. I offered individual and group ministry for families who had suffered trauma; three of the forty-six families responded. With a congregation of over a thousand it was hard to reach everyone. Healthy people come out okay after being tossed around;unhealthy people want “it” to go away or look for someone to blame.
What did help? Despite the differences between two wings of the Protestant church(Evangelicals and Mainliners) and the Roman Catholics who walked a healthy middle between the two, the churches did for the most part react well. TheMormon community made over 1800 quilts for students. The merchants were generous. People flew students to different experiences for R&R. One young man in my congregation was flown East to sit in professional baseball dugouts and speak to hundreds of students. All this was part of the therapy. The community came together; counselors, funeral homes, police, and firemen were all helpful.
The raw weariness of the community continued to be exploited by the media at every opportunity. Two of the families whose children were murdered continued to want some form of revenge or a truth that did not exist. Others announced forgiveness. Sue Klebold wrote apologies to each of the families and responded to the over 4000 letters of support. A Lutheran pastor,whose son had killed a woman and is in prison forever, called and offered comfort. Public lament was mixed with public and personal grace. It is grace that sustains us until we find a new “normal.”
Prior to the one-year anniversary my church council had asked that I not make any public comments during Holy Week, which was the week of the anniversary. I received permission to do a presentation at the public service, but I was asked not to say anything to the media.
Several weeks before the anniversary I had been interviewed by the Rocky Mountain Newson the meaning and theology of what happened. Among other things I spoke of aLutheran perspective on life. “Life is work. Love is suffering. Life is love.”However, the article was not printed until Maundy Thursday. My role as pastor and word-giver was challenged and up for grabs. Part of the congregation felt the article was great; some others went ballistic. I was definitely no longer the pastor of the congregation even though I had been there for ten years and sincerely loved most of the members.
One expects that if one is faithful, ethical, and doing the best they can, one will be rewarded for such service. When attacked as a bad pastor while doing one’s best to rise to the occasion, one wonders why God is not so good to his friends. We hope our crosses will be surrounded by lilies and not by disappointment.
To be fired, as it were; to watch the bishop walk away; to see fellow Lutheran pastors treat you like you have leprosy pales compared to the personal anguish of a family that has to pull up roots, take apart a house, and at age sixty fear unemployment and take what exists in any form of a job. Hundreds of thousands of people go through this each year, but when it is personal, it seems overwhelming.
One becomes used to community and hopes that the church one serves will be there for you. So often it is not. Clergy bashing and scapegoating arise in times of crisis and trauma. Someone has to carry away the tension. Since pastors cannot fight back, they often become the focus for such displacement.
What heals in times of lament?
First of all, the lamenting – giving private and public expression to one’s sorrow and grief and anger and disappointment – is useful in itself.
Secondly, staying close to the Word and finding another community is helpful. For monthsI went to Mass each day and received the Eucharist from Catholic priests who were friends. I would go early, read from my Lutheran devotional and focus on the phrase that the priest says during the Lord’s Prayer, “…and deliver us from all anxiety.”
Third, families come together during such times if they are healthy. Ours were helpfuland hopeful.
Fourth, friends are fantastic. Women from the church came and helped us pack. Others took us out to dinner. Clergy from other denominations were good to us. A priest sent us a hundred dollars to go out to dinner. The interfaith clergy group gave me an award in recognition of service.
Fifth,God raises up. I believe that one has to be open to new forms of service and opportunity. Inconvenience is a part of life.
Sixth, life changes, but love continues to exist.We die many times and we experience many forms of grief, but as St. Paul put it, “Love never fails.” We are on such a journey even now. Lament is not without hope.
Thee, thee and also me . . . and we . . . pastor and person and community.