Pastor shares Jesus in war-like scene amid students fleeing Columbine High

LITTLETON, Colo. (BP)--Denver-area pastor E. Michael “Butch” Caner has never seen the horrors of war, “but I assume it would have been something like this.”

Caner, pastor of Central Baptist Church in Aurora, was among several ministers brought to Columbine High School in Littleton as the nation’s worst-ever school shooting unfolded April 20, taking 15 lives, including the two weapons- and bomb-wielding youth clad in black trenchcoats who invaded the school.

Asked by a patrolman friend to the school grounds, Caner recounted, “It was a gruesome scene. … Blood was everywhere, students were being carted off on gurneys and stretchers, parents were weeping.

“Some people kept asking, ‘Why, God, why?’ It was specifically to these families we ministered most. They needed someone to assure them that God is not the author of sin and that he wanted to bring them peace.

“We had amazing opportunities to share Christ,” Caner said of his ministry at the scene, which extended to 9:30 that night. “With the media swarming and secular counselors giving no hope, we really had the chance to share Jesus.

“It was ministry on the front lines, which is exactly where the church should be.”

Rob Norris, director of missions for the Denver Association of Southern Baptist Churches and interim pastor of Littleton’s Ken Caryl Baptist Church, located less than two miles from Columbine High, said 13 of the school’s 1,800 students are members of the congregation.

All of the church’s youth were safe, but surely traumatized, Norris said. One girl was in the cafeteria when shooting erupted there in the rampage by the two youth, identified as Eric Harris, 18, and Dylan Klebold, 17, who, after killing 13 others, including at least one teacher, killed themselves. More than 20 others were wounded in the melee, which began around 11:30 a.m. and ended around 4 p.m. Another of Ken Caryl’s students was barricaded in a room with eight students and two teachers for several hours.

Deacons of the church visited each of the families the night of April 20, as did the church’s bivocational youth minister, Steve Lee.

“We have had a tremendous outpouring of support of people praying for us here in Denver,” Norris said April 21, adding, “The Christian community has come together in this crisis.”

Littleton, in terms of death count, now tops the now-familiar list of communities -- Pearl, Miss.; West Pacucah, Ky.; Jonesboro, Ark.; and Springfield, Ore. -- that have weathered multiple school killings since the Oct. 1, 1997, slaying of two students in Pearl.

The tragedy surely will yield opportunities to point people to faith, especially those asking, “Why?” Norris said.

“Although we may never be able to understand why, we do have some answers,” he said, “and those answers are in Jesus Christ -- and that’s a vital message to get out to people.”

In their upcoming Sunday sermons, pastors in the area “will have a special opportunity to share truth, comfort and point people to the cross,” Norris said.

In a brief interview at 5:45 a.m. on the local ABC-TV affiliate, Norris and Caner also were able to offer the association’s telephone number as a clearinghouse for people seeking spiritual counsel in the wake of the shootings.

Among Southern Baptist congregations in the Denver area with students at Columbine High, in addition to Ken Caryl, are Riverside, Bear Valley and Christ Baptist churches and Centennial Community Church. All the churches’ students were reported safe, Norris said.

Nick Lillo, pastor of Centennial Community Church, a congregation located about four miles from Columbine High School, said the church staff gathered to pray after learning about the unfolding crisis “and then we sent a number of them, mostly those involved in our youth ministry, to Leawood Elementary School. That’s where authorities were sending kids from the school and where parents were told to go.”

On April 21, Lillo said the church staff was setting up counseling appointments for kids and families. A 7 p.m. prayer service also is scheduled. No members of the church were among the slain or wounded.

“We think we have everyone accounted for,” he said.

The church, which is affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention and the Conservative Baptist Association of America, averages about 1,000 for Sunday worship. Lillo, who has been the pastor 14 years, said the church originally met in a movie theater near Columbine High School, which enabled the church to attract several students from the school. He said many students and families were part of the church’s move to its new facility in June 1997.

Lillo said as the days go on his church’s efforts to help the community cope with the tragedy will be twofold.

“First, we are concerned with how we can help those people in our church who have been traumatized by this -- not just physically, but emotionally,” the pastor said. “Second, we want to serve the community -- as a whole -- as best we can. There are a lot of people in our community who have no spiritual connection … no spiritual dimension to their lives.”

Lillo said churches in the community seem to be responding well to the crisis. “I would appreciate people praying for us,” he said.

“I think it is a huge challenge for our church as we attempt to reach a culture that is moving away from moral absolutes,” Lillo said. “We’re experiencing the consequences of that.”

Don Hinkle contributed to this article.

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