A recent issue of Newsweek (April 20) provided a very moving account of the lives of two pastors who ministered to the grieving during the time of the Columbine High School massacre ten years ago. This is “the rest of the story,” or at least a significant part of it. Christians should pay attention to this story.
The two pastors cited in the article could not be more different. One, the Rev. Don Marxhausen (at the left below), is a Lutheran (ELCA) minister who is described by the article as “liberal-minded.” The other, Rev. George Kirsten (at the right below), is the senior pastor at West Bowles Community Church, an independent evangelical congregation. The article notes that these two pastors, from differing ends of a theological spectrum, are “still haunted by the school massacre.” This is an understatement to say the least.
Marxhausen arrived in Littleton in 1990 and built St. Philip Lutheran Church into a thriving, mainline congregation with more than 1,000 members. He believes in a loving, forgiving God and “nuances” approaches to questions of salvation. When Tom Klebold, the father of one of the two shooters, asked Rev. Marxhausen to conduct a funeral service for his son Dylan he agreed. He says he did so because he believed that Dylan’s parents deserved to hear of the grace of God. According to news accounts at the time Marxhausen said to the Klebold’s, in his funeral sermon, “God, who knows about suffering and pain and loss, wants to reach out to you.” As he preached Marxhausen says he could see Dylan’s body in an open coffin with a small mountain of beanie babies piled around his head to cover the self-administered gun shot wound. It was only four days after the shooting. Hatred for Klebold was high and remained high for years to follow.
Two days after the service that Marxhuasen conducted for the Klebold family Rev. George Kirsten conducted the funeral of Cassie Bernall, a junior at Coumbine. Her story would later become a best-selling book written by her mother, titled She Said Yes. (I read the book with deep interest when it came out.) More than 2,500 people flooded the sanctuary at the West Bowles church for Cassie's funeral. The television cameras were also there to show the world. Pastor Kirsten proclaimed that Cassie Bernall was a martyr. But during the last ten years Kirsten has been routinely attacked for exploiting Cassie’s story. A Navy pilot in Vietnam Kirsten knew horrors but he soon found out that none compared to Columbine.
Columbine has become a national symbol—a dark day in our collective memory that few of us will ever forget. Newsweek adds, “Littleton became ground zero for the kind of white, evangelical Christianity that was sweeping the country at the time.” (I find that a bit offensive but it is not entirely wrong, at least from the perspective of cultural reality.) Classmates sought to make sense of this tragedy but pastors had no time to interpret the issues cautiously. Each had to deal with things that came at them day after day after day. Ten years later, these two pastors represent the price that many paid following Columbine. Though very different in theology and personality these two ministers struggle powerfully with Columbine to this very day.
Marxhausen, now 70, became intensely frustrated with evangelicals who treated the tragedy as an opportunity to bring people to Jesus. He was especially bothered by Franklin Graham’s Sunday crusade that drew 70,000 to a parking lot. What finished Marxhausen’s ministry in Littleton, however, was not his reaction to the evangelicals but his continuing attempts to help the Klebold family. He described the parents of Dylan Klebold, to the Denver Post, as “the loneliest people on the planet.” He says that in time he became toxic to his congregation because of his public profile. He took a three-month sabbatical. When he returned in September he said “it was clear this wasn’t my church anymore.” Today he lives south of Littleton with his wife. He ministers to a tiny, rural congregation in Idaho Springs, a mountain community.
Kirsten was in Israel the day the shootings happened. He came home immediately. He had performed the marriage of Misty and Brad Bernall in 1980 and had helped guide Cassie through a well-known (because of the book) dark and rebellious time. The West Bowles congregation filled the home of the Bernall in the weeks that followed. Kirsten was there to grieve and help his people as best he could. He says, “What I remember most is the tremendous barrage of very hurting people.”
Kirsten came to Denver in 1974 to attend Denver Seminary. He began West Bowles, as a non-denominational church, in the 1980s. Kirsten told Newsweek, “We rely heavily on scripture and on the premise that Christ is the ultimate forgiver, the ultimate lover, and that only through him can we know the Lord.”
Cassie’s story became legend at West Bowles. But over time questions about her story sprang up. The original version was that Klebold had asked her if she believed in God and when she said yes he then shot her. But another version, which seems right, soon came from a student who said that Klebold asked her the same question and when she said yes she was allowed to live. The father of a boy who died that day believes that propagating the Cassie “legend” exploits the grief of other parents whose kids also died. But the West Bowles people still defend the Cassie story. Kirsten says, “People were missing the big point. She said yes with her life. So to have the entire credibility of it washed away, that hurt.”
But the more Kirsten was removed from the tragedy the more his life began to crack under the stress. He had survived a helicopter crash in Vietnam and saw fellow crew members burned alive on the USS Enterprise. He says, “I pushed [the pain] down, and I did that again with Columbine. When you’re in it and so impacted by it, you just don’t think about the effect it’s having on you.” A friend finally convinced Kirsten to go to the VA hospital where he received a diagnosis of 80% disabled with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Eventually he relinquished the pulpit at West Bowles even though he is still listed as the senior pastor. Sunday attendance has declined from 2,000 in 1999 to about 1,100 in 2009. According to Newsweek Kirsten now finds comfort in riding his Harley-Davidson motorcycle on mountain highways and still goes to the VA hospital weekly for therapy.
Marxhausen’s comments ironically sum up what both men feel ten years later. “I learned how fear can take hold of a community. You have to be prepared to hurt when you go into the ministry. But I never thought it would hurt that much.” No one does. How could you prepare for Columbine?
I wept while reading this story. I do not care if you are a mainline moderate/liberal minister, or a deeply conservative independent evangelical minister, you cannot go through such trauma unscathed. Further, there are no easy answers to such stress. What could either man have done differently? Marxhausen feels he should not have taken a three-month sabbatical that summer but then how would he have coped without it? Kirsten was there for his people for months that followed and had a breakdown. What could he change? Very little I think.
It is far too easy to cast blame in reading an account like this one. Perhaps this is what attracted me so deeply to this story. Both men awaken within me deep sympathy and a genuine desire to help pastors face the real humanness of their own lives in the midst of trial and tragedy. When we are in the trenches of life, struggling to make sense of madness and death, much of what we think is so important does not matter that much. Evangelicals and mainline ministers alike need grace. All ministers need to take care of their own lives or they cannot care for others. In the end no one may be more in danger of breakdown than your pastor. This is a very good reason for churches to make sure that they take care of the total health of their minister. Most do not and the price tag is huge. I would be pleased if one reader took the initiative of caring for the whole person of their pastor more personally because of this story and my comments.