Cassie Bernall’s faith at gunpoint reverberates nationally, globally

LITTLETON, Colo. (BP)--As Jesus fed the 5,000 with five loaves of bread and two fish, “Cassie fed the world with one word, ‘Yes,’” said Dave McPherson, youth minister at West Bowles Community Church, Littleton, Colo., the Sunday after Cassie Bernall was slain at Columbine High School.

Cassie’s “Yes” came in response to the question, “Do you believe in God?” posed by one of the two deranged classmates who shot her to death, along with 11 other students and a teacher, and wounding nearly two dozen others, before taking their own lives in a April 20 melee at the 1,900-student school.

“Yes, I believe in God,” Cassie, 17, told the gun- and pipe bomb-wielding gunman.

"Why?" he mused rhetorically without giving Cassie a chance to respond before pulling the trigger.

“Bernall entered the Columbine High School library to study during lunch. She left a martyr,” the Denver Rocky Mountain News stated.

Cassie’s answer came after a long pause.

“I think she knew she was going to die if she said that,” one of her friends, Kevin Koeniger, a member of Cassie’s youth group at West Bowles Community Church, told National Public Radio’s “Morning Edition.”

“That’s why she waited so long. She didn’t wait determining whether to say yes or no. But she knew that if she said yes, she would die,” Koeniger said.

“I think if there’s one way to die, a good way of doing it is dying for your faith,” said another of the 200-member youth group, her name indistinguishable on the NPR broadcast. “I think she’s awesome.”

“I can’t even explain like the joy that comes from my knowing a person that would die for my Lord,” another friend, Erika Dendorfer, told NPR. “I’m sad that she had to go in the way that she did with two killers, but I’m happy that she went dying for Christ.”

The intent of the gunmen (Columbine students Eric Harris, 18, and Dylan Kelbold, 17) to kill a Christian “backfired,” said a youth whose name also was indistinguishable on the NPR broadcast. “People around the world have heard about this, the girl who died a martyr,” he said.

Cassie’s witness for Christ in death indeed has gone global. One of the earliest reports of her fateful affirmation was on CNN’s “Larry King Live.” In addition to the NPR segment, she was described on ABC’s “20/20” newsmagazine April 26 as a “modern-day martyr” who “refused to renounce her faith.” The headline of a story about her death in The Boston Globe April 24 read, “A martyr amid the madness,” while The Washington Post also employed the concept of martyrdom in an April 27 story.

The Globe noted, “Accounts of the final moments of Cassie’s life echo with the history of early Christendom, when a profession of faith could be a fatal act.”

Cassie spoke of her faith in a youth group video just two days before her death.

“You really can’t live without Christ. It’s, like, impossible to really have a really true life without him,” she said.

In living as a Christian, she said, “I just try to not contradict myself, to get rid of all the hypocrisy and just live for Christ.”

Nearly 2,500 people attended Cassie’s funeral April 26 at West Bowles Community Church.

“Cassie went to a martyr’s death,” pastor George Kirsten told the mourners, “and we’re going to celebrate that because she’s in the martyr’s hall of fame.”

McPherson, the youth minister, said in his message, “What the church has talked about for 2,000 years, what every church in this world has talked about on a daily basis, Cassie, you did it.”

Several years earlier, Cassie had been a troubled middle-school student who, as The Denver Post put it, was “enthralled by witchcraft, suicide and a view of life so dark that her desperate parents dragged her” to meet with McPherson.

McPherson told The Post he well remembers meeting with the sullen youth who spoke in monosyllables. "There's no hope for that girl,” he admitted thinking afterward. “Not our kind of hope.''

A few weeks later, however, Bernall hurried up to him after a Sunday service. "You'll never believe what happened,'' she said of her new faith in Christ.

Among other vignettes from Cassie’s life and death:

-- Attending her funeral were numerous members of Victory Outreach, a storefront church in one of Denver’s roughest neighborhoods, where Cassie and her friends shared dinner every few weeks with prostitutes and drug addicts who are part of the inner-city congregation.

-- Cassie’s younger brother, Chris, found an almost-prophetic poem the night of her death which she had written the previous Sunday, The Boston Globe reported.

Cassie wrote:

“Now I have given up on everything else -- I have found it

to be the only way to really know

Christ and to experience the

mighty power that brought

him back to life again, and to find

out what it means to suffer and to

die with him. So, whatever it takes

I will be one who lives in the fresh

newness of life of those who are

alive from the dead.”

-- Cassie had planned to cut her corn silk-colored hair that hung halfway down her back “and give it to someone who makes wigs for kids who are going through chemo,” her aunt, Kayleen Bernall, told The Denver Post. Cassie had planned to have it cut “really short,” her aunt said, quoting Cassie as saying, "I want enough hair for two or three kids, as many kids as possible.”

-- Cassie had wanted to go to medical school, become a doctor and do medical work in England and Scotland, her aunt said. Cassie also wanted to become better at the nature photographs she loved to take.

Incidentally, Cassie was not the lone Christian killed at Columbine High April 20.

According to the Internet site ReligionToday, Rachel Joy Scott, 17, who was also killed in the library, had led a weekly prayer and Bible study group of fellow teens the past year and a half at Orchard Road Christian Center, an Assemblies of God congregation. The ReligionToday report was drawn from the Assemblies of God news service.

“We consider her [Scott] to be a Christian American martyr,” the church’s youth minister, Barry Palser, told The Washington Post. Her April 24 funeral was attended by nearly 2,000 people. Rachel, a fun-loving participant in drama and forensics, had told friends she was considering graduating early to travel with a Christian drama team and perhaps later to become a missionary or to work with troubled youth, the Denver Rocky Mountain News reported. And she had promised her prom date, Nick Baumgartner, to give up her occasional smoking.

John Tomlin, 16, another victim, attended a Baptist church twice a week to participate in a youth ministry, Boyd Evens, his pastor, said, according to ReligionToday. Tomlin had traveled to a small town in Mexico last year as part of a ministry that helped build a house for a poor family who had been living in a shack. He had planned to enlist in the Army after graduation.

Two of the victims, teacher William “Dave” Sanders and student Danny Rohrbough, were shot while helping others escape from the gunmen.

Sanders, whose April 26 funeral was at Littleton’s Trinity Christian Center, herded students to safety when gunshots broke out in the school cafeteria, The Denver Post recounted. Sanders, 47, who had taught at Columbine 24 years, then went upstairs to aid other students, dragging one who had been wounded in the leg to safety, before being shot twice in the chest. According to the Associated Press, Sanders staggered into a classroom where students tore off their T-shirts and pressed them to his wounds. They pulled out Sanders’ wallet and held it open so he could see pictures of his wife and three daughters. His dying words were, “Tell my girls I love them.”

Rohrbough, 15, whose April 26 funeral was at Littleton’s Grace Presbyterian Church, was shot in the back while holding open a door to let others escape from the gunfire. His lifeless body was among the first TV images broadcast live to the nation the afternoon of the tragedy.

The church’s pastor, Dwight R. Blackstock, said Rohrbough might still be alive “if he’d have made a little different choice. Yet he chose to stay there and hold the door for others so that they might go out before him and make their way to safety. They made it and Danny didn’t,” according to an account of the funeral in the Denver Rocky Mountain News. Blackstock noted that Rohrbough’s heroic act, “in the last few moments of his life on this earth, was the kind of thing Jesus holds up as an example to us all. Jesus said, ‘Greater love has no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.’

“That’s what Danny did.”

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