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’God is still there’: Reflections from a youth minister at Columbine

In 1999, Jim Beckman was a youth minister in Littleton, Colorado, just down the street from Columbine High School.

When Jim heard there was a shooting at Columbine on April 20, he jumped in his car and rushed to the high school.

In the hours that followed - and the weeks and months after that - Jim found himself ministering to teens and families who had been through unimaginable horrors. He wasn’t quite sure what ministry after a mass shooting should look like. He hadn’t been prepared for a situation like the one he faced. But he did what he could, offering food and comfort and hope.

Mostly, he said, he tried to be present.

The Pillar spoke with Beckman about his memories of the Columbine shooting, and about ministry in a time of violence and tragedy. That interview is below, edited for clarity and length.

Columbine Memorial in Littleton, CO. Credit: David Keyzer via Flickr CC BY 2.0

April 20th, 1999 - the Columbine shooting. You were at that time the youth minister at St. Francis Cabrini Parish, just down the street from Columbine.

What happened that day? What was your role?

It’s one of those surreal moments that gets frozen in your memory. I was walking across the youth office in the parish because I was printing out labels for care packages that we were sending to all of our college students over spring break. My printer ran out of ink, and so I was walking to the supply closet to get a new printer cartridge. And as I was walking back, my phone’s ringing. I answer the phone and there’s a hysterical mom on the phone saying there’s gunshots going off at the high school.

And without really thinking very much, I just hung up the phone, ran out my office door into my car and started driving up the street to the high school.

It was one of those reactions where you're just not thinking clearly - like what was I going to do if I got up there, you know?

But I got into the area across the street from the high school before the police had shut everything off. Even at that point, police cars were racing in, shutting off the entrances to the school. And so I turned into a neighborhood across the street. Already there were kids running across the street into the neighborhood. People had already come out of the houses and were setting up like triage - kids who had been cut on glass and things like that were on driveways.

It just looked like a war zone. It was bizarre. And you could still hear some gunshots going off in the building.

I didn’t really know what I was there to do. But I just started making an effort, finding our kids. I was back and forth on the phone with the secretary in the youth office saying, ‘Pull up a database, find the names of every kid from our parish that goes to Columbine High School. I’m going to start walking around the neighborhood. And whenever I find a kid that's one of ours, I'll call and let you know which one.’ We had over 200 students in the building that day.

And eventually I ended up running into one of our volunteer core team members, who was a Denver police officer. He put me in his police car and we started driving around to the nearby elementary schools and library, where they were holding students. I kept finding kids from Cabrini, and telling the youth office that they were safe and to let their parents know which place they were at.

You realize pretty quickly that the parents are just going to be scared to death and are going to be trying to find their kids. And hours later, it was probably nine o'clock at night or something like that, when I finally got back to the parish and I walked into my office and there’s the lid to my printer, still open. It felt like a lifetime

Were kids from the parish killed that day?

Yes, we had three.

Daniel Mauser. Kelly Fleming. Her family were actually parishioners over at Light of the World, but we had her funeral at Cabrini. And then Matthew Kechter, who was a football player.

And then a number of the other kids were very involved in some of our youth ministry. Rachel Scott was one, and she was also dating one of our teenagers at the time of the shooting.

When did you next see the kids at the parish? What did you say to them?

I think this kind of gets to the current moment with what’s going on in Texas. Our ministry really became one of presence.

You know, I don't think there's any real good wisdom in situations like this. What are you supposed to do? Or what are you supposed to say? I think you’ve just got to be there, which we literally started doing immediately.

We started calling parents and students and just saying, look, we’re going to gather in the church at seven o’clock tonight, to just pray. And we had people at the church round the clock for the next seven to 10 days. We were serving three meals a day in the parish hall.

And so it just became this kind of central hub, where people were coming. Eventually as people started going to the different funerals at different churches, everyone would come back to Cabrini afterward.

And it was kind of funny, weeks later, some of the officials from Jefferson County Schools called and wanted to meet with [pastor] Fr. Ken [Leone] and I. They said ‘We've spent several hundred thousand dollars building a youth center up by Southwest Plaza Mall, and no one’s coming to our youth center because they’re all coming to your church. We need you to tell them to come up to the youth center. That’s what we spent all this money for.’

And it was just this great moment where Fr. Ken said, ‘I’m not gonna tell kids that they can’t come here because they're not going to your place.’ He goes, ‘This is where they’re comfortable. This is where they want to be.’

So we really did just become this hangout center for kids and for families for weeks and weeks afterwards. And we had counselors kind of around the clock doing group sessions and offering individual counseling sessions for parents and for students. We provided food. We provided time to pray and opportunities for people to talk about what they experienced and to ask questions.

And I think in times of crisis, that's what we need to be. Just a presence, a stabilizing presence, a shoulder to cry on and an ear to listen.

What did the kids want to share?

Well actually, a lot of what was shared in those times was kind of eerie, because it was like miraculous things. The kids had all kinds of experiences that were really, like, angelic. I would find myself kind of marveling after everything was all over at how many kids would share these stories about the circumstances of what was going on around them, and how they got out of the building somehow unscathed.

You’re like, how did that even happen, you know, like that’s not physically possible.

There were a lot of stories like that.

How did you know what the right role was for you, as a youth minister, after this crisis?

How did you know how to act? How did you discern what your role was going to look like for the kids?

I think I just knew. It wasn’t like I spent a lot of time thinking about it. I think it was the Holy Spirit.

There was a kind of mantra that developed over a week. Fr. Ken and I, whenever we would gather for prayer, one of us would get up and would say something to encourage everybody and to give people hope.

And the spiritual message that emerged out of that time was ‘We survived. We will prevail. We have hope to carry on.’

And wow - one of the teenagers ended up putting that phrase into a graphic. And then one of the parents ended up making a t-shirt out of it.

I don’t know how many thousands of those t-shirts ended up getting printed. But we gave them to all of the students at Columbine High School and all of the teachers. And we did a retreat, I think at the end of the summer, before the next school started, with that theme.

So I don’t know. I think we just got on our knees and prayed and asked for God’s mercy and asked for God to give people hope in the midst of these dark circumstances. And the Holy Spirit just spoke and moved people's hearts.

How were the kids dealing with this psychologically? This was at a time before mass school shootings were common in the news.

Were you able to help the kids work through it all?

We had a bunch of counselors that were connected to our parish. A lot of them were doing a lot of the group counseling sessions for people. So they were there in the building. I would have lunch with them at least once a week and would just ask them: ‘What are you hearing? What do the kids need? Or what do the parents need?’

And some of them were saying that people just needed a basic understanding of what was happening to them psychologically.

So we put together this little booklet. The counselors helped write the most of it. I think Fr. Ken and I probably added some of the spiritual component to it. But it was just a little booklet, and it just kind of walked through things like shattered boundaries, when you go through something like this and you almost lose your life in a place where you should have been safe. It does something where it messes up your mental framework around understanding healthy boundaries. And if you don't know that, you'll find yourself doing really risky things without realizing what you're doing. And in your subconscious, you're thinking, ‘well what does it matter? I could go to school and die, so what does it matter if I'm driving 130 miles an hour down the street?’

And teenagers in particular, who are just more impulsive and not as attuned to their own emotions and feelings, they were just doing really bizarre things, into that late spring and summer.

So we printed the booklet and then started giving it out to parents and doing classes in the evenings where counselors would help parents understand, ‘Okay, here’s what’s going on psychologically in your kid. Here’s why they're doing some of the stupid things that they’re doing. They don't know. It’s just all psychological processing.’

We found some of that kind of stuff  immensely helpful.

You’ve kept in touch with a lot of those kids. Can you see ways in which the response to that tragedy has shaped them in the long term?

Obviously tragic things like this can be devastating, but our parish during that time grew immensely. Our youth ministry program almost doubled in size and stayed like that for many, many years. I think our faith and our trust in an eternal reality that goes beyond even tragedy and tragic circumstances like this was a stabilizing force in the whole community. Not just for our parish, but in the community. And I think it gave hope to a lot of people.

A lot of the young people that were in the building, that went through it personally, I saw them become better people.

I think when you go through a crisis, one of three things can happen. You can come out and return to normal. You can come out the other side and actually decline, like maybe you picked up an addiction or your ability to cope with stress was really lessened. Or you can come out the other side of it stronger, better, more resilient. And I think a lot of our young people came through that whole time and became better people because of what they suffered.

What do you think changed in your own ministry as a consequence of kind going through all of this?

I think it strengthened our connection with families. Because that whole time, we weren’t just ministering to the teenagers. We had whole families showing up at the parish and sitting together and praying together and praying over each other. And I think that kind of shifted our normal, because on the other side of that, families were kind of connected. That was just a big part of our reality. We had a parent ministry and were doing a lot of retreats for parents.

This sounds so intense. Not just emotionally and spiritually, but also just a lot of work.

Did you burn out at some point? If you didn’t burn out, why not?

I wouldn’t say I burnt out, but I came pretty close.

There was something that happened with me maybe a year or 18 months later.

We had a small community that was gathering one night, and everyone was talking and kind of sharing things at the beginning. And my wife said something sarcastic to me, in front of everybody in the group, and I just looked at her like, ‘What? What does that mean?’

And my wife and I broke out into a fight in front of this room of people. It was almost like none of them were there for a second. I snapped back at her, and then she shoots back right away, ‘Well when you’re done saving the world, let me know and maybe we can pick up our marriage.’

And I shot back, without missing a beat, ‘Save the world? I’m still trying to save the kids in the library.’

And then there was just dead silence.

I think that was the moment for me where I realized I’m trying to do something that can't be done.

It was actually a beautiful moment, because the fight broke out in front of four other couples who were our closest friends.

And I was calling a counselor the next morning and my wife and I were going to counseling together. And I pulled way back from what I was doing at church for the next three months. It was just this illumination, on kind of this futile amount of energy that I was pouring into trying to save something that couldn’t be saved. And working so hard that it was at the expense of my family and my marriage.

It was actually really, really powerful and led to all kinds of healing, not only in our marriage, but I actually think it helped the fruitfulness of the ministry and other things that we were involved in, because I started to see the error of what I was doing and how I was operating. Jesus didn't need me to save the world, he already did that.

What is your advice right now for people in ministry, in Uvalde, Texas? Or to people in ministry anywhere after a shooting like that?

I think my biggest advice would be that you can't give what you don’t have. You’re going to want to do everything and meet every need, and you can’t. You just have to be present to people. You have to be willing to listen to people, but you have to know when you’re at the end of your limit, and go back and refresh and renew yourself. Make sure you’re praying and letting the Lord fill you up.

It’s like that famous Saint Bernard quote: ‘Don't be a channel, be a reservoir.’

A channel just transmits something from one place to the next, without retaining a drop for itself, but a reservoir first fills itself up. And then without losing any of what it has, it waters the fields that it’s meant to water.

So you’ve got to be a reservoir if you're gonna be in ministry, particularly in tragic stuff like this. You have to operate in that mode where you're always aware of how your reservoir is being filled up before you're going and doing what you're doing.

Did your pastor understand that? Did he appreciate that?

Yeah. Fr. Ken was just an amazing pastor, and he’d just spent himself all during this time, even more than I did. He was very attuned to people and to their needs and ministering to the staff. He was an amazing person to work for, going through something like that. We’re kind of bonded for life through the Columbine experience.

What is your advice for those of us who are not in the front lines of ministry, or directly affected by a particular shooting, but are still deeply unsettled when these things happen.

What can we do spiritually as we experience this?

It’s so easy to look at this kind of stuff in the world and to just kind of go to the doom and gloom, you know, what is happening and why is the world so dark and how could something so evil happen?

I think it’s so important to just point to the reality of our faith, and the hope we have in a God who never abandons us. And even in the darkest of circumstances, the light of Christ still shines forth. That light always overpowers the darkness.

That message: ‘We survived. We will prevail. We have hope to carry on.’ It’s really a living message, you know? So don’t lose heart. Don't be discouraged when you're in the face of a lot of evil and darkness.

God is still there.

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