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May 8, 1999
Column #923


     Among those singled out for murder in Littleton were deeply committed Christian kids.  One of the killers in the Columbine High School library sneered at Cassie Bernall, 17, ''Do you believe in God?'' She paused for a long moment before answering, ''Yes, I believe in God.'' 

     ''Why?'' demanded one of the gun- and pipe bomb-wielding gunman.  He gave her no opportunity to respond before blasting a shotgun at her temple.

     Why did Cassie hesitate before speaking?

     ''I think she knew she was going to die if she if she said that,''  Kevin Koeniger, a member of Cassie's youth group at West Bowles Community Church told National Public Radio. ''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.''

     ''I can't even explain like the joy that comes from my knowing a person that would die for my Lord,'' 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 (Eric Harris, 18, and Dylan Kelbold, 17) to kill a Chrisitan ''backfired'' said another youth on the NPR broadcast. ''People around the world have heard about this, the girl who died a martyr.''

     Indeed, the normally jaded press and TV reporters kept retelling her story, sending it around the world. CNN's ''Larry King Live'' was one of the first to spotlight her martyrdom. Her courage was reported by  Peggy Wehmeyer, ABC's full-time religion correspondent on the World News Tonight and ''20/20.'' Ms. Wehmeyer was the first to reveal that Cassie was once headed in a negative direction, and that her parents deserve credit for helping her discover God.

     In her 9th grade year, Cassie developed an interest in witchcraft, suicide, drugs and alcohol. Her desperate parents felt they had to step in. Wehmeyer noted "The Bernalls decided the only way to stop their daughter from making more bad decisions was to make good decisions for her.'' They changed her school and began regularly searching her room and backpacks. She was not allowed to see her old friends or use the phone. Cassie told her parents she hated them.

      They only place she could go was to church. They dragged her to meet Dave McPherson, youth minister at West Bowles Community Church. He told the Denver Post that he remembers meeting with the sullen young girl who spoke in monosyllables and thought, ''There's no hope for that girl.''

     Then Cassie went on a church retreat that changed her life. She came home and looked her mother in the eye, and said, ''Mom, I have changed."

     Cassie spoke about her faith on a video for a youth group 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.

     What heartening news this is for parents, whose child may be into sullen rebellion.

     Art Toalston of the Baptist Press reports that among the 2,500 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 with prostitutes and drug addicts every few weeks.

     Cassie had planned to cut her soft yellow hair that hung halfway down her back ''and give it to someone who makes wigs for kids going through chemo,'' according to her aunt.

     Another Christian kid killed in the library was Rachel Joy Scott, 17, who had led a weekly prayer and Bible study group of teens. Active in drama she told friends she considered graduating early to travel with a Christian drama group and perhaps later to become a missionary.

     John Tomlin, 16, another victim, attended a Baptist church twice a week to participate in youth ministry. A year ago, he had traveled to a small town in Mexico to help build a house for a poor family who had been living in a shack.

     Finally consider Danny Rohrbough, 15, who was shot in the back while he held open a door to let others escape from the gunfire. His pastor, Dwight Blackstock of Grace Presbyterian Church, said the boy 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.

     ''Jesus said, `Greater love has no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.''

Copyright 1999 Michael J. McManus.

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