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School violence tragedies thrust pastors, churches to God’s answers


SPRINGFIELD, Ore. (BP)–Once again the shock of school violence rolled across a stunned nation May 21 as news reports detailed incidences on this one day of teenagers and guns in three states that resulted in five deaths and 23 wounded.
The carnage started before 8 a.m. Pacific at Thurston High School in Springfield, Ore., a tree-lined bedroom community near Eugene. This was when a 15-year-old male pulled a .22-caliber rifle, a .22-caliber handgun and a lightweight, semi-automatic Glock handgun from his oversized trench coat and opened fire in a crowded school cafeteria.
When suspect Kipland Kinkel was subdued minutes later by other students, one classmate was dead, one later died and 22 others were injured, four critically. Police at the suspect’s suggestion later checked and found Kinkel’s parents dead in their rural home 12 miles from Springfield.
About the same time 200 miles north, in rural Onalaska, Wash., a 15-year-old male boarded a school bus with a 9 mm semi-automatic pistol in his hand; then demanded his girlfriend get off the bus with him.
Within minutes, he had mortally wounded himself in the head and died before midnight. The girl was not physically injured.
In the early afternoon, Houston time, a 17-year-old male student in suburban Jersey Village, Texas, dropped his innocuous-looking backpack during a class and the pistol inside discharged. The accident sent a 15-year-old girl to the hospital with a gunshot wound to her leg.
The three incidents follow the shooting death two days previously of a high school senior in Fayetteville, Tenn., by a fellow classmate, and three other school shooting tragedies since January — in Pennsylvania, Kentucky and Arkansas.
“You hear about this happening in other places but you never think it could happen in your hometown,” said Larry Browning, Southern Baptist pastor of ValleyHills Community Church, a congregation begun on Easter that uses Thurston High School’s auditorium for Sunday services and its cafeteria for refreshments.
“This tells me that sin abounds. I mean, it’s everywhere,” Browning said.
He and his wife, Ann, are graduates of Thurston High School.
“We were listening to the news conference when the superintendent of schools said we failed because we haven’t provided enough money for Head Start and other programs,” Browning said. “She said that with school funding cutbacks, we lost counselors and other things. It’s kind of like if we had enough money we could solve the problem, but that’s not the case.
“We want to always look to programs and funding but we never look to the root problem, sin,” Browning continued. “Without changing a person’s heart, all this other stuff is not going to do any good.”
Joe Martin agreed. He is pastor at First Baptist Church, Toledo, Wash., about 40 miles southwest of Onalaska.
Onalaska residents are among the Toledo church’s members. There is no Southern Baptist congregation in Onalaska, which is about 20 miles east of Interstate 5 and 75 miles south of Seattle.
“This kind of violence is not some kind of fluke,” Martin said. “It’s a symptom of a deeper cultural vacuum in young people who lack a moral compass. These kids are dealing with emotional trauma that people in their mid-20s have a hard time with. In their emotional landscape, breaking up with a girlfriend or boyfriend is tantamount to a divorce.
“If they don’t have any spiritual moorings, if they don’t have some restraint in their lives, they become not only unraveled but they resort to the lowest common denominator, which is violent aggressive acts,” Martin continued “Culturally, we’re living in the wake of a 50-year social experiment with letting children make their own decisions, and it’s not paying off very well.”
Martin said he was in a pastors’ prayer breakfast when the group received word of the shootings in Springfield and Onalaska.
“We just wept,” he said. “The church has failed when the society is killing itself off. The church has failed to impact the culture when we see this kind of wholesale violence among the youth.”
His Sunday sermon would reflect Thursday’s carnage, the pastor said.
“The issue’s going to be, the church needs to be the church,” Martin said. “We have people in Onalaska. We all have to ask ourselves the question, ‘Have there been spiritual appointments that have been missed?’ This ought to be a call to prayer.”
For 20 years or more, relative truth — what’s good for you — has been taught, rather than biblically based absolute truth, Martin said.
“We have indulged a generation: ‘You have a right to your feelings,’ instead of the biblical idea that you need to have self-control and that passion is rotten to the bone,” Martin said, referring to Proverbs 14:30: “A tranquil heart is life to the body, but passion is rottenness to the bones.”
“It’s not that emotion doesn’t have validity, but God doesn’t do his deepest work in the shallowest part of a human being,” Martin said. “We tell people they have a right to their anger and the excesses begin to appear. All of this is a result of God’s people moving away from God’s Word.”
Bill Phillips knows firsthand the effects of a sin-saturated society. He has combined pastoral ministry with emergency services chaplaincy ministry since 1980 and now is director of missions for Willamette Valley Baptist Association in Oregon. He lives in Springfield, is a member at the new ValleyHills congregation and was at the McKenzie-Willamette Hospital when the wounded still were arriving.
“A lot of people here are hurting,” Phillips said. “They feel their safe zone has been violated. It’s a terrible feeling that you no longer have control, you no longer have safety. When people go through that, they begin questioning everything.”
Phillips described the counseling efforts that will be taking place with students, as well as emergency medical personnel, teachers and school administrative staff.
“First there’s an initial debriefing that’s more of a defusing, taking off the really high emotion of the moment, kind of like venting,” he said. “Then you sit down within 72 hours and talk about what happened and each person puts in a piece of the puzzle.”
This helps people understand the sequence of events, Phillips said. “It seems to make them aware that they’re a normal person having a normal reaction to an abnormal situation,” he said. “Sometimes if people have an incident like this happen and they’re apart from other people who’ve experienced it, they think they’re the only one to be feeling like they are. This second debriefing helps them be able to cope and to move beyond the tragedy.”
Because of its status as a crime scene under investigation, ValleyHills church will not be able to use Thurston High School for its May 24 services. “Our whole focus has been to reach the unchurched,” pastor Browning said. “We hope to be able to use the park across the street from the school, and to get the media to announce the service. Maybe God will use this, especially if we’re able to meet in the park and have a time of worship. “Maybe God will use that to express to the community our care and our concern.”
Martin said he plans to challenge his congregation to get on their faces before God and consider whether they are investing in their young people, or entertaining them.
“I think the call to the churches is to say we have to see the desperation of the day and to cry out to the only one who can really fix it,” Martin said. “That’s God. We can’t. Look at Psalm 90:16: ‘Let Thy work appear to Thy servants, and Thy majesty to their children.’ We want God’s splendor to really appear to these kids, that they would really see the splendor of the Lord, that they would see the way it could be. What do these kids need? They need to see God doing what only he can do in the midst of his people.”