"I smell the presence of Satan"

Is Littleton's evangelical subculture a solution to the youth alienation that played a role in the Columbine killings, or a reflection of it?

Published May 15, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

"This is a church on fire!"

It's Sunday morning, less than a mile from Columbine High School, and Trinity Christian Center is heaving and rumbling like an old-time tent revival. The frenzied congregation thrusts its arms up toward the heavens, belting out the spirit their souls just can't contain. No one's got the fever like a sunburned young high schooler, radiating from the choir like the wild orchids bursting through her sundress. Head thrown back, eyes squeezed shut, her lips keep charging straight through the instrumental jam:

This is a church on fire!

This is a Holy Spirit flame.

We have a burning desire,

To lift up Jesus name ...

Two weeks ago, the country's attention was turned to Trinity Christian Center, site of four Columbine victims' funerals. This was Rachel Scott's church, and the Columbine junior's funeral was nationally televised. What the cameras couldn't fully capture was the power of the evangelical Christian culture that has taken root in Littleton, and among its young people, as it has in many of the nation's suburbs.

Anyone in America with a working television, of course, sporadically witnessed the outpouring of faith in the wake of the killing spree by Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, which left 15 dead. One after another, grieving students described the victims as "servants of Christ " and spoke of their "personal relationships with Jesus." The morning after the shooting, almost 100 students piled together into a huge group prayer hug in Clement Park, arms raised to the sky, voices joined in hymns to the Lord. The cluster alternated between songs and spiritual proclamations. "We feel the presence of Satan, operating in our midst!" a young girl cried out. Students flocked to churches for comfort, often trekking to three or four grief ceremonies a night. And most of the funerals were held at three evangelical churches: Trinity Christian Center, Foothills Bible Church and West Bowles Community Church.

Meanwhile, across the nation, Columbine senior Cassie Bernall has become a modern-day Christian martyr for proclaiming her faith in God immediately before being gunned down. In trouble with friends and in school, Cassie was forced by her parents -- whom she'd threatened in letters to kill -- to attend West Bowles Community Church, where, after protest, she underwent a spiritual awakening and was born again.

"Millions have been 'touched by a martyr,'" her pastor, the Rev. George Kirsten, told his congregation this past Sunday. He shared a vision youth pastor Dave McPherson received while ministering to the Bernalls: "I saw Cassie, and I saw Jesus, hand in hand. And they had just gotten married. They had just celebrated their marriage ceremony. And Cassie kind of winked over at me like, 'Dave, I'd like to talk, but I'm so much in love.' Her greatest prayer was to find the right guy. Don't you think she did?" And while Kirsten works to console his grieving congregation over Cassie's loss, he sees the girl's murder as an opportunity to save more souls. "Pack that ark with as many people as possible," he says.

While that strong Christian faith proved invaluable in comforting this community after the killings, it also ignited simmering tensions in Littleton. Those tensions briefly rose to a boil after the memorial ceremony on April 25, which drew Vice President Al Gore and 70,000 mourners, packed in more witnessing for Jesus than any Sunday sermon at the local evangelical churches. The Rev. Don Marxhausen, pastor of St. Philip Lutheran Church in Littleton, was quoted by the Denver Post as feeling "offended," and "hit over the head with Jesus." Marxhausen serves as de facto leader of local Protestant churches, and officiated over the small, private funeral for Dylan Klebold. Non-Christians felt excluded, too, and the memorial's lily-white lineup offended many non-whites.

Colorado is certainly well known for evangelical activity. The Promise Keepers are headquartered just ten miles from the school in Denver, Focus on the Family operates 50 miles south in Colorado Springs, and the regional Mormon temple serving several states sits right there in Littleton. A Salon News survey of local churches and church associations indicated nearly twice as many evangelicals as Catholics active in the area, a radical departure from national figures. All the local Littleton clergy report active youth movements, in addition to student-sponsored groups such as the Columbine Bible Club. One evangelical minister described the typical youth ministry as expecting attendance at two meetings a week and two additional monthly events, for a typical schedule of 10 commitments per month.

But in the wake of the Columbine killings and the evangelical proselytizing -- and controversy -- they engendered, some local evangelicals insist Littleton is no hotbed of born-again culture. "Any time there's a major catastrophe, a lot of 'God talk' surfaces," said a leading evangelical minister. "Give us six months, and most of that will be gone." But others disagree. A staffer in that minister's own office described Columbine as "a very active churchgoing community." And in an indication of the growing tension in the community, the normally outspoken evangelical minister insisted on anonymity.

Others aren't so shy about proclaiming their influence. "Men and women, open your eyes!" wailed the Rev. Bill Oudemolen from the pulpit at Foothills Bible Church the Sunday after the massacre. "The kids are turning to God! They're going to churches!"

Weeks after the worst school-based killings in American history, Littleton is still trying to figure out what that really means, and whether this emerging religious culture is a solution to youth alienation that played a role in the Columbine killings, or a reflection of it.

The conflict over the Columbine memorial offered a window onto the spreading evangelical movement changing the culture of suburbs like Littleton all over the country, but especially in the South and West. The movement includes some Baptist and Presbyterian churches, but nondenominational "community churches" or "megachurches" are the real force behind it, and several have sprung up around Columbine High School in the last few years.

Most of Columbine's student body is drawn from unincorporated Jefferson County, well west of Littleton and farther afield from Denver, where the gently rolling hills suddenly give way to the Rocky Mountain foothills, rising up like a great barren wall. Travel west three miles from Columbine, to where the strip malls and subdivisions drop away, and three new, modern megachurches rise up from the prairie, dominating the terrain on the edge of what feels like the end of the inhabited world: West Bowles Community Church, Centennial Community Church, and Foothills Bible Church, as far from Denver as the mountains will physically allow.

They've joined a host of older community facilities, like Trinity Christian Center, and Southern Gables Church just west of Columbine, where pastor Jerry Nelson leads a loose association of 33 evangelical churches, known informally as the Southwest Metro Denver Area Pastors. Trinity's services were actually conducted at Columbine High until three years ago, as were West Bowles' in the mid-1980s. Low-tech Trinity Christian, housed in a converted Kmart, is the most working class of the bunch, and it's an outpost of old-time religion, with an active but comparatively small membership that's deeply engaged with the church. The newer evangelical churches tend to be more refined, professional and market-savvy.

On the opposite end of Littleton, South Suburban Christian Church exemplifies a national trend of marketing to different demographic groups by a single church. The moderately evangelical congregation, which is home to Dylan Klebold's prom date, offers four different Sunday services, targeted to four distinct market niches. The most traditional service features a liturgy appealing to straying Catholics and Lutherans, while "Hiz Place" caters to Gen-Xers gathered around tables with espressos. "You wouldn't recognize it as church," beams pastor Deral Schrom.

In the first days after the Columbine shootings, local religious leaders were a model of civility, setting aside differences and welcoming one another into their services. By nightfall on the day of the shootings, 35 local churches had united into an ad hoc union called the "Clergy Coalition on Scene," to work together to calm their shattered community. Three evangelical ministers from a distant suburb, free of the baggage of local religious politics, and the needs of a terrorized congregation, were deputized as leaders. They organized regular meetings to coordinate clerical response and discuss boundaries of good behavior. There was general agreement that this was no time for proselytizing to shell-shocked students. "They weren't ready to be preached to, but they were ready to pray," said the Rev. Aaron Jamal, the African-American minister who headed the Coalition and later spoke at Isaiah Shoels' funeral.

A few ministers brought booklets and Bibles -- the assorted "paraphernalia" of proselytizing -- to the grief sessions, but Jamal politely asked them to put them away. "They were well-intentioned, but off the mark," he said. "It does absolutely no good to throw a bunch of paraphernalia at someone who doesn't understand what it has to do with what they're going through."

It was clear that faith was invaluable to many hardest hit by the tragedy. On the afternoon of the shooting, reporters were cleared out of Leawood Elementary School before victims' parents were notified, but Red Cross volunteer Lyn Duff witnessed the scene firsthand. Duff, who is Jewish, was moved by the reaction of the evangelical families to their loss. "It was like 180 degrees from where everybody else was," she said. "They were singing; they were praying; they were comforting the other parents, especially the parents of Isaiah [Shoels]. They were thinking a lot about the other parents, the other families, and responding a lot to other peoples' needs. They were definitely in pain, and you could see the pain in their eyes, but they were very confident of where their kids were. They were at peace with it. It was like they were a living example of their faith."

But early rumblings of a conflict began to emerge with within hours of the tragedy, playing out far from public view. Barb Lotze, youth pastor at Light of the World, a local Catholic church, hosted a huge prayer service for students, and found herself grappling with competing challenges of good taste, religious opportunism and the spirit of working together with fellow clergy. She was struck by the necessity for inclusion as she watched students, parents and townspeople from a host of different faiths pour into her pews. Midway through the service, an eager young minister from another denomination approached her excitedly about an "altar call." Altar calls are a foreign concept to Catholics and mainline Protestants, but a key feature of evangelical worship, the ritual commonly referred to as being "born again." Lotze was torn, but agreed in the spirit of inclusion.

The young man rushed to the altar and proclaimed his love for Jesus Christ, and asked who was ready to come forward and accept him as their own personal savior. No one moved, Loetze said.

"Nobody?" the young man asked in astonishment. At that, young people began to leave the church.

"The kids are not ready if they don't know Christ to come at this point," she said. "They just want to be hugged, they want to be loved, told that we're going to get through this together."

Most Protestants agreed with Lotze, including some evangelicals. "I think it would be crass to have an overt invitation," said Jeffrey Marchant, a local resident and director of legislative and cultural affairs for Focus on the Family. "Most genuine Christians would probably not be interested in something opportunistic like that. I wouldn't." But others saw the killings as a God-given marketing opportunity, a chance to save souls. The Rev. Oudemolen of Foothills Bible Church, for instance, told his congregation that the parents of victim John Robert Tomlin requested he make John's funeral "an evangelistic service," including "an invitation" to be born again.

"What an incredible opportunity," Oudemolen said, "not only here, but through the live [television] feed that we had."

The delicate balance between comforting and recruiting held until the Sunday after the massacre, when 70,000 mourners gathered for the official statewide memorial service. Working with the governor's office, a committee of a dozen local ministers put together what they considered a diverse program of singers, public officials and four clergy. "Roman Catholic, Protestant and Jewish, I think that's diverse right there," Gov. Bill Owens' spokesman, Dick Wadhams, said later. It might have looked good on paper -- if one overlooked the fact that both Protestant ministers and all three headline singers were evangelical, and that every person at the podium was white, despite the fact that Isaiah Shoels had reportedly been targeted by the killers because he was black.

Perhaps less foreseeable was the instinct of the politicians to grab ahold of God with both hands while the grabbing seemed good. Al Gore suddenly found his Southern Baptist roots, quoting the Scripture more than any clergy on the panel. The Rev. Billy Graham's son Franklin dominated the ceremony with a lengthy and impassioned recruitment speech for one particular brand of Christianity. He called for a return of prayer to schools, and in one flurry, invoked the name of Jesus seven times in under 45 seconds. Evangelical leader the Rev. Jerry Nelson, pastor of Southern Gables Church, gave a brief speech which got right to the point: "There is only one rational way to live without despair in a world of such pain. And that way is to know the son of God, Jesus Christ."

Much of the Denver clergy was outraged. Christian leaders, in particular, were embarrassed by the association. "It was not a pleasant experience," said the Rev. Michael Carrier, pastor of Calvary Presbyterian Church, and chair of the Interfaith Alliance of Colorado. Some clergy and local residents defended the panel as representative of the Columbine community. But Carrier insisted that "This was a service for all Colorado. It did not reflect that broadness." He saw a different moral obligation as imperative in addressing mourners: "That is such a vulnerable moment. So I'm always personally very careful not to do anything other than honor and respect what they're feeling. I would not use it as an evangelistic opportunity."

Wadhams was unapologetic. "I think it is reprehensible to politicize a memorial service," he said without a hint of irony. He described the controversy as "fairly insignificant--a bunch of whining pastors."

Rabbi Fred Greenspahn of Beth Shalom Temple in Littleton, the lone non-Christian at the podium, described how "up-front Christianity" is often perceived by outsiders. "Jews hear that as: 'They expect me to become one of them. And I don't like it when they pressure me. I don't pressure them; why do they pressure me?'" That feeling is often shared by Catholics and mainline Protestants, he said, because many evangelicals use the term "Christian" in a manner intended specifically to exclude them. Greenspahn, who is the chair of the Religious Studies department at the University of Denver, praised Archbishop Charles Chaput for conveying his message at the memorial without using the word Jesus. "He was thinking about Jesus," he said. "People who heard him understood him to be referring to Jesus. But he didn't use that word, because he knows that this wasn't the right occasion, according to our unstated rules [of civil discourse]."

Watching the memorial at home on TV, Rev. Schrom gasped when Nelson began proselytizing. "Oh, Jerry!" he said out loud, realizing that Nelson was going to catch a load of flack for expressing himself that way. He defended Nelson's right to make that speech, but said he personally would have tempered it a bit, "acknowledged other folks." Schrom described Nelson's choice as the moral dilemma evangelicals face every day: the conflict between respect for others' beliefs and the moral obligation of "standing up for a belief in Jesus Christ as the only way." He said he would have tried to be more sensitive to a diverse audience, but he too, would have had to use that valuable opportunity "to witness to what I believe."

Yet he bristled at some "spiritual headhunters" less interested in spreading love than "just racking up another scalp. The Bible was never meant to be a club," he said. "If I'm using it as a weapon, that's really sad." He said he tries to keep one thought in mind as he struggles with that dilemma: "Jesus never said 'I came to make you more religious.' He said 'I came to give you life; that your joy may be full.'"

Ironically, though, it was Greenspahn who drew parallels between the social ostracism suffered by the killers at Columbine High, and the treatment of evangelicals by mainline religions, including his own. "I've heard evangelicals being criticized in some pretty cruel terms," he said. One reason the evangelicals felt the need to drive home their point of view was because they've been so often excluded in the past, he said. "We always get a Protestant, a Catholic and a Jew for these things," but never an evangelical.

"Finally, they're invited to a ceremony with a governor and a congressman and a senator and the whole world watching, out it pours: 'I'm going to show you what I think.'"

Greenspahn is right. It's grown fashionable in many circles to demonize evangelicals, without really understanding them. It's striking that the national media largely ignored the evangelical aspect of the Columbine story, with secondary stories about the national response to Cassie Bernall the rare exception. It may be that reporters -- who, according to national polls, are far less religious than most Americans -- didn't know how to deal with what they saw. Clearly they couldn't sneer, in the wake of the tragedy and in light of the obvious comfort many found in churches. But they couldn't delve beneath the surface of what they witnessed, either.

But the remarkable youth ministry among evangelicals in and around Littleton is part of a national story, with repercussions beyond the Columbine tragedy. The transformation of Cassie Bernall represents, perhaps, the best these churches have to offer teens. Two years ago she was strung out on drugs, deeply involved in witchcraft, and began writing hateful letters to her parents. "She said she wanted to kill them," said Pastor Kirsten. "She was going down the road of Dylan and Eric." Youth pastor Dave McPherson described her then as "lifeless, callused and cold."

McPherson counseled her desperate parents to "cut her phone, lock the door, pull her out of school, don't let her out of the house without supervision." Her parents complied on every count, and a bitter struggle followed for the next four months. "She despised us at first," McPherson said. Then something mysterious happened on a weekend youth ministry, where she converted overnight. "She left an angry, vengeful, bitter young girl, and came back brand new," Kirsten said. McPherson says there were no signs leading up to it, which makes no sense to a lot of people, but is common among those who have undergone a conversion, McPherson said.

After the conversion, she attended youth ministry enthusiastically, but struggled with social pressures right up to her death. "We're not saying she's Joan of Arc," McPherson said. "But she understood what it meant to just go home at nights saying 'I feel left out. I don't feel like I fit in. But guess what, I'm going back again.' Our conversation Monday, in our youth staff meeting, was how do we get Cassie to fit in better? And the next day she's dead."

But despite her difficulties, McPherson said, Bernall never slipped back into her old ways, a common syndrome among teen converts. She wore a "What would Jesus do" bracelet to school and volunteered with Victory Outreach Church, helping drug addicts and ex-convicts in Denver. McPherson said a group of 60 ex-cons came to mourn her. "They came down and just said, 'She covered our backs when we were in need; now we're here to cover her back.'" Just before her death, she had announced her intention to cut her long blond hair after graduation to donate it to a group that makes wigs for children with leukemia. Kirsten said one of Misty Bernall's first reactions to news of her daughter's death was that Cassie would be so disappointed that her organs could not be donated.

The Cassie Bernall story may sound like a parent's dream, but it would be risky think forcing kids into church is a cure-all. Interestingly, Bernall has emerged as a figure of adulation and respect among self-described stoners from local high schools, even as they reject what they describe as attempts by parents to cram Christianity down their throats. The reaction of a group hanging out at Southwest Plaza Mall a mile from Columbine was typical. "Right on!" they howled at the mention of Bernall's name. Between cigarettes, the half dozen girls from Columbine, Chatfield and Dakota Ridge high schools openly discussed drug use, yet applauded Cassie for kicking hers, which they considered far more serious. "I give her so much respect for doing that," said Katelyn Noschese, a senior at nearby Dakota Ridge.

But these same students recoiled at parental attempts to force their beliefs. "They need to back off," said sophomore Amy Henderson. Henderson was expelled from Dakota Ridge after a pot-smoking incident. She now attends a small private academy, which she described as dominated by at-risk youth. She attends Foothills Bible Church under protest each week. Her parents now accompany her to the adult service, since she was caught "ditching" youth services for several years.

"They need to lay off and leave the person alone," Henderson said of evangelicals. "If they're going to find God, then they'll find him on their own. Their parents aren't going to force them to, because the more their parents try to get them to, the further away they go."

When pressed, she said she believes in God, though not quite the same conception of him as her parents. "I don't believe in the Adam and Eve theory," she said. She bitterly complained of "five-hour fights" with her father over the issue. "He doesn't respect what I believe. All he wants is me to believe in what he believes. He doesn't listen to anybody else. She said she actually resists exploring or embracing her beliefs in the face of so much strong-arm pressure. She said that all of her friends who found religion accepted it without intervention. "Nobody can convince them to believe in God," she said. "People have to come to it on their own."

Kirsten conceded that forcing too hard in situations like Henderson's can easily backfire. "It worked out well for the Bernalls," he said. "But it could have just as easily backfired." He suggested parents find ways to work with their kids to find agreeable solutions. "Believe me, if you just come in their blasting them, and beating them up, that will definitely be counterproductive." But he stressed that the greater problem is parents avoiding confrontation. "Most parents are way too passive today," he said. "It's so painful and so difficult, that most parents don't do it."

The evangelicals were also quick to seize on the Columbine killings as evidence of Satan's work. Although most of the religious outpouring in response to the tragedy was positive, and stressed faith as a loving, healing force, some ministers deride that approach as "'Sound of Music' theology," in the words Pastor Bill Oudemolen of Foothills Bible Church. While Oudemolen has had words of comfort for mourners in all of his sermons since the tragedy, his primary focus is on Satan. "I smelled the presence of Satan," he announced the Sunday after the shooting. Dozens of times he repeated the theme: "It's coming from Satan ... Satan had a plan ... What we saw Tuesday came from Satan's home office."

Kirsten also considers the Columbine killings Satan's work, and directs his congregation to God as an avenging force. He likens Cassie Bernall to the martyrs calling out to God at the onset of the Apocalypse, paraphrasing Revelations 6:10. "How long? How long will it be, until my blood is avenged?"

Lynn Ross Bryant, expert on American religion at the University of Colorado and active in a mainline Protestant denomination, was heartened by the outpouring of Christian faith after Columbine, but troubled by recurrent themes of evilness. "The 'Satan in our midst' talk could really lead to a demonizing not only of the kids involved in this, but of other kids in school," she said.

Initially, Oudemolen identified Satan specifically with the two killers, but this past Sunday, he broadened the indictment during his sermon: "[Satan] wants us to see trench coats and people in gothic attire and makeup and here's what he wants us to feel: Look how powerful and scary Satan is."

"It was hard for me to sit through that," Henderson recalled hours later at the mall. "I was getting angry. I wanted to tell him to shut up." She's highly sensitive to slurs against goths, whom she described as nice people already angry with society. She contrasted them with evangelical kids, whom she characterized as "really judgmental. The youth groups are more clan-like than a lot of the high schools," she said. "If you don't believe in the right God, you're a bad person." She also sees the emphasis on Satan as something of a cop out by society: "I believe that the kids were responsible for their own actions," she said.

Back at the Trinity Christian Center, I can't take my eyes off the sunburned young girl in the choir. Her eyes haven't opened once -- I wonder what she sees back there. She's singing with her whole body: lungs bursting, head whipped side to side, flowing blond hair sailing behind it, dancing nearly weightless through the superheated air. I wonder about her past: Was it as troubled as Cassie's? Or as Amy Henderson is right now?

I can see how this church, and others like it, could be the perfect balm for teenage alienation. And I can also imagine it making outcast kids feel even more beyond redemption: the proselytizing, the insistence on Jesus as "the only way," the demonization of those who sin. It has affected me both ways. In the weeks since the Columbine killings I've haunted these churches, and I've been moved by their love and their spirit, and the genuine kindness shown to me, a stranger. But as a gay man raised Catholic, I find it hard to believe that for all their talk about love -- and the true warmth they've shown me -- they'd extend that same warm welcome if they knew the real me.

If we've learned one thing from this tragedy, it's what every one of us who went to high school already knew: It can be hell, and kids are facing tremendous pressure --to perform, to achieve, most of all to fit in. Amy Henderson just shakes her head. "It's hard in a high school atmosphere. High school is just so cliquey. It's just -- it's hard." Evangelicals are no doubt making a difference for some teenagers, but for others, they may be making it harder.

By Dave Cullen

Dave Cullen is a Denver writer working on a memoir, "In a Boy's Dream."

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