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Churches offer comfort, hope after Georgia school shooting

CONYERS, Ga. (BP)–While investigators worked behind crime scene tape at suburban Atlanta’s Heritage High School the next day after a well-publicized May 20 shooting, nearly 800 students, parents and community leaders gathered at nearby Heritage Hills Baptist Church to hear an update from school officials and to find comfort in being together.
“We’re just trying to minister to our kids and to other kids,” said youth pastor Sean Nix in the Conyers, Ga., church parking lot, surrounded by a variety of local and national media representatives.
Nix said students began coming to the church the previous day after school was dismissed when six students were injured by gunfire and transported to area hospitals. A fellow student was charged with entering the school’s common room as classes were about to begin and randomly shooting among the students.
When news reached the airwaves that some students were gathering at the church, others began to make their way to Heritage Hills, said Nix, who had been preparing for a True Love Waits ceremony, an effort to promote sexual abstinence until marriage, for students at a nearby middle school. That event was postponed until Monday and Nix turned his attention to providing support for his high school youth and their friends who had been traumatized by the shooting.
“We had a lot of kids come by here who are not part of our youth group,” said Nix. The church enlisted counselors to meet with students to help them process their fears and to struggle with the familiar question of how such a violent event could occur in a community known for being quiet and caring.
“It can happen anywhere,” said Joe Hughes, pastor of Heritage Hills, reflecting on the tragic event that had suddenly thrown this growing community just 25 miles east of Atlanta into the spotlight.
“And there is no [answer to] ‘Why?’” said Andy Gans, director of children and youth at nearby Smyrna Presbyterian Church. However, he said the students could find “strength in knowing that God is always going to be with you.”
Gans said the close relationship between local youth ministers who meet as a support group and cooperatively sponsor an annual event helped them in responding more effectively to the needs of the student body.
Both youth leaders expressed appreciation for how the students were supporting and encouraging each other. “I saw a lot of love and compassion,” said Nix after meeting with students. He added that they prayed for both those who had been injured and for the fellow student charged with the shooting.
Kenny McKay, a Heritage High student and part of the Heritage Hills youth group, said such a tragedy probably resulted from “a hardened heart.” He added, “It takes a long time to get that much hate.”
Junior Randy Norman, who plays football at Heritage, was about to pull into the school parking lot when he saw police and emergency vehicles speeding past him. Instead he went to the adjacent football field house and learned about the shooting from a coach.
After returning home, Norman went to Heritage Hills to be with his church youth group and other students impacted by the crisis. He is casual friends with two of the students who were injured and only knew the shooting suspect as someone in his math class.
“Christians have been known as being hypocritical” by not always showing the love they claim, Norman said, so he was pleased his church responded so well to the crisis by “trying to show God’s love.”
With one week remaining, school officials were seeking to bring the academic year to a close by allowing students to forgo final exams if pleased with their current grades. Graduation ceremonies just eight days after this tragic incident were to remain on schedule.
But the impact of this surprise shooting at Heritage High, one month after a more deadly incident in Littleton, Colo., will go on much longer.
Gans said he sensed two strong feelings among the traumatized students with whom he had spoken. First, they are “scared and their innocence has been broken.” Second, and on a hopeful note, he said, “These kids are taking charge of the situation” by supporting each other and looking to the future.
“I’m really worried about the eighth-graders,” said Gans of those who will be entering Heritage High as new students next fall. “There’s enough fear in just moving up.”
But he added that it is often “in times of tragedy that people turn to God.”

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  • John D. Pierce