Sacrifice teaches faith lesson

Teen: Christians find inspiration in the story of the Columbine High School student who affirmed her beliefs.

May 10, 1999|By John Rivera | John Rivera,SUN STAFF

Staring down a gun barrel in the Columbine High School library, Cassie Bernall was faced with one of Christianity's ultimate questions: Do you believe in God?

Her answer in the shadow of death has transformed the 17-year-old into a powerful symbol of faith, particularly for evangelical Christians, who consider Cassie a modern-day martyr.

In just under three weeks, since she was one of 12 students shot and killed at the Littleton, Colo., school, she has become the subject of sermons and the hot topic in youth group discussions throughout Christendom. She has been immortalized in Web pages and held up as a model of the steadfastness to which every Christian is called.

"She sold out to the Lord," said the Rev. Terry Bailey, pastor of the Kingsway Christian Center in Rosedale, who recently used her as the centerpiece of his Sunday sermon. "Instead of renouncing the Lord, she was committed. She was willing to die for what she believed."

According to witnesses, before shooting her, one of the two masked gunmen asked her, "Do you believe in God?"

"Yes, I believe in God," she reportedly replied. Then she was killed.

Although there is no way of knowing what would have happened had she said "no," evangelical Christians believe her confession of faith in the face of death recalls the early church martyrs.

"Cassie died a martyr's death," said her pastor, the Rev. George Kirsten of West Bowles Community Church near Littleton, during her funeral. "She went to the martyr's hall of fame."

Cassie's story, initially reported in the national media and on such shows as "Larry King Live" and ABC's "20/20" newsmagazine, has been taken up by the religious media. Evangelist Charles Colson, in his daily radio commentary "BreakPoint," called it "a test all of us would hope to pass, but none of us really wants to take."

"The best way all of us can honor Cassie's memory is to embrace that same courageous commitment to our faith," he said.

But Cassie's story is apparently having its greatest impact at the grass-roots level, particularly in Sunday school lessons and youth group discussions, both formal and informal, in personal encounters and through the Internet. The Southern Baptist Convention wove it into a recent youth Bible study guide it distributed through the Internet. Youth pastors are e-mailing each other accounts of Cassie's story, as well as a religious poem she wrote two days before her death.

"What we're hearing is youth pastors are using her story to inspire the kids to stand up for what they believe in," said Mike Atkinson, Internet director for Youth Specialties, a clearinghouse for evangelical youth ministry resources in El Cajon, Calif. It has created a Cassie page on its Web site, along with links to at least a half-dozen similar pages.

"I've heard all the way from huge gatherings of 80,000 Christian kids being inspired by it to small youth groups," Atkinson said. "There's certainly a wave of stuff going on because of what she did."

Some pastors see Cassie's story not only as an example of heroic faith, but as evidence of Christian persecution.

`Anti-Christian perspective'

"We're living in a day of decidedly anti-Christian perspective," said the Rev. John A. Dekkar, pastor of Cub Hill Bible Presbyterian Church in Baltimore County. "Today they persecute the children who carry a Bible."

The Rev. John Draper, director of missions at the Baltimore Baptist Association, sees a pattern emerging in the school violence in Littleton and December 1997's shootings in West Paducah, Ky., where Michael Carneal killed three Christian students.

"In Paducah, it was a prayer meeting that was targeted for that act of violence. So it isn't incidental," he said. "I think our culture, and particularly our political system and media, will have a lot to do with the shaping of culture and whether or not that kind of thing can be tolerated."

Cassie Bernall has been a choice topic at the youth group of Bay Country Community Church, a nondenominational evangelical church that worships at Annapolis High School. During a youth group meeting at a Severna Park home on Wednesday night, a group of middle school-age girls said that everyone at school was talking about it.

`It's really inspiring'

"It's really inspiring, what she did," said Megan Henry, 13. "Because I know a lot of people wouldn't do that. It would inspire me to do the same thing if I were in her situation. That would be the best way to die."

Reflecting the natural optimism and enthusiasm of youth, almost everyone in the Bay Country group said they would respond the way Cassie did. But an earlier discussion of her death at Sunday school led the youth pastor, the Rev. John Carnwath, to a troubling revelation.

"Basically the death out there brought it home that we have to take a stand," Carnwath said. "What really gut-wrenched every kid in class was, if we were put in that position, what would we do? Would they be able to say `Yes, I believe in God, I believe in Christ'?

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