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Missions trip in Columbine victim’s honor buoys town’s lone S.B

FREMONT, Neb. (BP)–A recent mission trip honoring a student slain in the Columbine High School tragedy resulted in a dozen people accepting Jesus as their Lord and Savior.
While some teens from the sponsoring Denver-area church were disappointed with those numbers, the pastor of the only Southern Baptist congregation in Freemont, Neb., a town of 23,000 people, couldn’t be happier.
Dennis Sneed of Freemont’s Emmanuel Baptist Church has approximately 50 names — gathered during door-to-door surveys — of people interested in learning more about the gospel. That equals the average Sunday morning attendance at the 20-year-old church.
“It’s the best thing we’ve ever seen,” said Sneed, who came to the church in 1994. “People are starting to talk. Suddenly there’s an enthusiasm to go out and do things. I can’t even imagine all the ramifications that will come out of this.”
Riverside Baptist Church South in Parker, Colo., dedicated its trip the last week of June to the memory of John Tomlin, who, along with a teacher, was one of 12 students killed at Columbine High April 20 by a pair of student gunmen who then committed suicide.
Although a member of Foothills Bible Church in Littleton, Tomlin had attended Riverside’s youth group for the last year. Forty-one of 60 members made the trip, along with 11 adult chaperones.
While Tomlin was the only Columbine victim from Riverside South, the suburban Denver church’s ties to the highly publicized tragedy helped spark larger-than-normal turnouts and media attention.
In the group’s first stop in the small town of Madison, Neb., population 2,100, several hundred flocked to the city auditorium to see them perform “WWJD? The Musical.”
Boyd Evans, Riverside South’s associate pastor of youth, said the group added a twist to the play by including a testimony from Michelle Oetter, who had begun dating Tomlin soon after he started attending Riverside.
Television and newspaper coverage followed in Fremont, where Riverside’s teens presented the play at Emmanuel and a Foursquare church the weekend they arrived.
During their week in town, the group led morning sports clinics and a backyard Bible club that grew so large it divided into two groups. In the afternoons, teens conducted door-to-door surveys and witnessed at local shopping centers.
A Vacation Bible School at Emmanuel filled the evenings, with enrollment peaking at 54 — nearly double past VBS turnouts, said pastor Sneed.
Among those who accepted Christ during the classes was a fifth-grade student whose mother was in prison for murder, Oetter reported. Three children enrolled that week have already written letters to members of the youth group, she said.
Two girls also accepted Christ as Savior at Westside Baptist Church in Omaha, where Oetter spoke at a mid-week service. About 20 others came forward for prayer or to pray for friends, which energized the recent high school graduate.
“I got pumped up after that,” Oetter said, recalling her disappointment in Madison, when only one person responded to an invitation to receive Christ. “At first I was discouraged because I was pouring my heart out and nobody listened.
“I went looking for God to work in one little area. But as the week went on, it became clear God was working all around … . We had an amazing impact on the kids at Vacation Bible School.”
The day after her talk in Omaha, her loss created another opportunity to share the gospel. As she talked with three teens outside a store, one told Oetter her father had died the previous summer.
Sensing the girl thought Michelle couldn’t comprehend her grief, she replied, “I understand because I lost my boyfriend at Columbine.”
That grabbed their attention, she said. Just then, youth group member Ryder King began talking to a teen nearby who was clad in a black trench coat, combat boots and a small tuft of purple hair.
“Isn’t that guy with you?” one asked about King. When Oetter nodded, the girl asked, “How can he go witness to a guy like that after what happened to you?”
“I told ‘em Jesus died for all of us and just because someone looks a certain way doesn’t mean God doesn’t love ‘em,” Oetter said. “They kept watching Ryder to see what he was doing.”
Although the trio didn’t respond to her explanation of the gospel, she said she feels it made an impression. The trip affected Oetter, too. She had planned to major in biology at Oklahoma Baptist University but believes God may be leading her into missions instead.
While the youth King approached was initially hostile and had a lot of preconceived notions about God, King said the rewards of working with children in Vacation Bible School and dedicating the mission to Tomlin’s memory made it a special week.
“His death changed the way a lot of us look at life,” King said. “We know we’re not guaranteed tomorrow.”
The Lord also touched 18-year-old Dustin Speer, who led a woman to Christ using Spanish. The recent high school graduate now wants to do mission work because of the burden he feels for Hispanics, said youth pastor Evans.
Despite these successes, many of the youth were concerned by the large numbers of people who refused to listen or showed little interest in their message, said Evans.
“I told our kids, ‘They’re not rejecting you, they’re rejecting the gospel,’” he said. “‘They hung Jesus on a cross. Paul didn’t convert everyone he preached to.’
“It opened my eyes to how blinded some people are,” Evans added. “We want trips to be positive, but this was a learning time. We were doing what we needed to do. We’ll never see the fruit initially. We need to remember we’re not responsible for bringing people to Christ, God is.”
However, local pastor Sneed said if other teens and adults had the same kind of heart for the lost as the Colorado teens, there would be a huge boost in evangelism.
“It shows their depth of heart,” Sneed said. “Dustin summed it best at the end of the week. He said, ‘Fremont, Neb., wasn’t the most glamorous place we could have gone on a mission trip. But we did kingdom work this week.’”

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  • Ken Walker