UUs Respond to Shootings in Colorado

From the UUA President -- Listen to the Youth -- Sermons -- Letters from Colorado
Related Titles from Beacon Press -- Send a message of support to UUs in Colorado

Columbine UU ChurchSend a message of support to UUs in Colorado

This picture shows the back wall of the Sanctuary at Columbine UU Church, which is covered with well over 2000 letters from Unitarian Universalists from throughout North America.
Photo credit: Greg Bradt, President of Columbine UU Church.

Memorial: Life is Precious...No more Violence
Photo by Howard Ruffner
A Littleton Diary
From the Rev. Joel Miller
Minister, Columbine Unitarian Universalist Church
Littleton, CO

Editor's note: These posts are taken from messages we are receiving from the Rev. Joel Miller, whose UU congregation is located two blocks from Columbine High School. This site will be updated as new posts are received.

May 26, Wednesday

Dear Friends,

Thousands of Unitarian Universalists from throughout the United States have sent us letters and emails and called us, and we are so grateful for your messages. UUs also responded generously to our request for help in meeting the expanded needs we've responded to. Dozens of volunteers locally and even from other states have offered and given us help, and over 300 people and congregations have contributed nearly $15,000 in support! We are honored and proud to be a part of such a committed and effective faith.

In the midst of our tragic killings, folks in the community are finding their way to our doors. Many people are feeling a need to be in a religious community at this time and many are visiting this church. Because of your contributions we can make our building available to neighborhood groups who need a place to meet and be together. We are offering professionally guided spiritual and emotional support groups. And your support allows us to advertise these services in this neighborhood. Our Unitarian Universalist message of tolerance and love is a beacon in a community that needs us.

You are here with us. There is a bumper-sticker showing up on cars here that says, "We are ALL Columbine," and Unitarian Universalists from all over North America are a meaningful presence with your help. Thank you so very, very much.

May 13, Thursday
Across the street from Columbine, the Church of the Latter Day Saints (Mormons) have their neighborhood building. Today I was presented with a beautiful quilt made by women in the LDS community here, and I have placed it upon my office wall. The LDS community has made and given quilts to all the students from Columbine High School (more than 1830), its teachers, and to all the area clergy. This is a part of their ministry here, and it has been very meaningful to nearly everyone.

I've been asked often how I am holding-up after the massacre at our High School. I've learned from counselors with experience in other community disasters (Jonesboro, Oklahoma City, Paducah) that when people experience these kinds of events, they are almost certain to face a spiritual crisis. The crisis raises doubts and anger, and as each person journeys through that, it is likely that she or he will either lose the faith they have or that faith will become deeper and more meaningful.

What is happening for me is that my faith feels much deeper. When I arrived at the elementary school shortly after the shooting began, I believe that what I did as an individual was show up. Everything else I did wasn't me. It couldn't have been. I've never trained to minister to this kind of horror, yet I didn't just stand there speechless and grief-stricken (which was exactly how I felt!). I found words to say that I'd never imagined saying words for parents, for students, for sermons, even for television interviews.

The words I found haven't been mine, I believe. They are ours. I have felt as though the millions of Unitarians and Universalists and Unitarian Universalists from across time and across the world were with me in these past weeks. I find myself wanting to know more about us and the people before us; wanting to know how our spiritual ancestors used this faith to live through crisis and tragedy.

May 8, Saturday
Life has returned to more everyday patterns here. Children are in their schools and looking forward to the Summer break; work and careers have returned with their everyday pressures; and community events likes soccer and cub scouts have resumed.

There is a bumper-sticker showing up on many cars here: "We Are ALL Columbine." There is a rally today organized by our school district called the "I Will" campaign, which includes the "I Will" pledge (the web site is: http://204.98.1.2/columbine/info/i_willrally.html). Our own Columbine UU Church is now the new meeting place for the neighborhood association and several other neighborhood groups. There are many good things happening here.

Columbine UU Church is just 6 years old and just moved into its first building. Our president put out a request for assistance when we realized we didn't have enough resources to keep up with the ministry we've had since the killings. Over 100 Unitarian Universalists from all over the U.S. have responded with generous contributions and local UUs with many hours of volunteer time. I am proud to be part of such an effective, compassionate, and generous people.

I spoke with a reporter today who wanted to know if the youth in this UU congregation are coping with the tragic killings like youths in other congregations. She explained that the youths she'd spoken with so far believe that God decided who would die and who would survive. I grew up UU -- I truly cannot comprehend this. I replied that for a kid who was injured or a parent who lost a child, the next question would seem to be "Why did I deserve this?" The answer, I believe, would be, "You didn't."

I've learned much about the needs of people who suffer violent losses recently. I've learned that most people typically avoid someone who has lost a family member to murder or even time in prison. But like those hurt or who lost a child in the Columbine massacre, such people need compassion. They need us to stick with them for at least 5 to 10 years, need us to call on birthdays and anniversaries and holidays, need us to be close by but not intrusive, need us to speak plainly of murder and death without euphemisms, and need us not to explain what cannot be explained.

Actually, it seems to me that if everyone did this as everyday life, 20 years of child-on-child violence might have never happened.

April 30, Friday
My wife, Wendy, talked with a UU friend whose daughter spent many terrified hours in Columbine High School that tragic Tuesday. The daughter, not really wanting to talk to a therapist or her parents, explained, "You weren't there. What helps is to talk with people who were there." Wendy had heard me, too, talk about being at the elementary school with the parents waiting for their high school children to arrive - and I have a hundred little stories of joyful reunions, horrified sobbing, and parents hearing from other teens that their own was maybe hurt, maybe dead.

At the memorial our congregation held the next night, there were church members who wondered why I had such trouble keeping my composure. I couldn't explain to them why without adding to their own trauma of just being a part of our badly wounded community.

Wendy, knowing this, imagined that this event was like an explosion with its center in the High School library, concentric circles pulsing out from there, each progressively bigger, each containing more and more people and spreading the horror of it. But the experience within each circle is so very difficult to describe to those outside of it.

The two Denver newspapers carried front page articles about how upset and dismayed the interfaith religious community is with the Evangelicals and the Governor for the religiously exclusive memorial last Sunday. The Governor's spokesman, when asked to comment, called the interfaith community's reaction "reprehensible." I'm not surprised but I am still sad over it. I think that spokesman truly does not understand why anyone is upset with the memorial or finds his "reprehensible" comment so terribly arrogant - that is how deep the chasm is between Evangelicals and folks like us.

I have been keenly aware of how this tragedy is nothing new to African Americans and some other minorities. I've known that child-on-child violence has been a long-time tragedy in some poor ghettos. I must say this; I must write it; the words have been burning in my heart ever since Tuesday night: if White America had cared enough to do something about child-on-child violence when it was an African American problem or a Hispanic problem, the white children and one black child who died at Columbine High School would be alive right now. Racism hurts us all in very real, very destructive ways.

Those circles of horror that emanate from Columbine High School across our nation look to me like earthquakes shaking our society. All the denial and glossing over its wounded places have crumbled away. It feels to me that only determined ignorance can continue to deny our society's wounded places.

April 28, Wednesday

Last week I left notes at the homes of the Harris and Klebold families and sent notes to the families of the killed and wounded children. The media was very interested that I reached out to the Harris and Klebold families. I was happy to show the media what Unitarian Universalism looks like in action, but I won't, of course, acknowledge if the letters ever receive an answer.

Columbine UU Church took a special collection for the Latter Day Saint (Mormon) Congregation across the street. They have one youth who was badly injured in the attack last week. They have been good neighbors to Columbine UU.

The "Interfaith" memorial last Sunday served many people, which was good, but excluded many others, as UUs who watched it will know. Religions in Colorado are sharply, deeply divided. Evangelicals in our neighborhood are segregating themselves from all the other faiths and creating their own memorials. This makes me so very, very sad. Knowing the attitude of the Evangelicals here, I suspect that they will abandon any tolerance they once had for public schools and just seek to destroy them. But I hope they read these words and tell me I'm wrong. I'd really like to be wrong about this.

The schools here felt that to maintain security, they must no longer allow non-school events in school buildings. But there are many people who are reaching out to create community in different ways, and Columbine UU Church is getting many requests for meeting space. These requests would have been far less likely before. We are proud to be here and be a positive, community-affirming presence. We are opening our doors to as many groups as our new but small building will allow.

Columbine High School's Debate and Speech team met here Monday. It felt so good to hear them laugh and cry and just be kids. Several area ministers agreed at a clergy meeting on Monday with this comment: "I was basically OK before and I'll be OK again, but what does this mean?" Kids aren't using therapists as much as expected, but are turning to their churches and temples in greater numbers than expected. All the houses of faith in this neighborhood have seen their attendance double.

Life continues here. Columbine UU Church and I have the honor of our first wedding celebration for a lesbian couple tonight. Our sanctuary is filled with flowers and has a traditional flower-covered arch. We're a spiritual home that a great many would not have had 6 years ago. It matters very much that we are here.

April 25, Sunday
Today, as my people drove in to church for Sunday worship, they had to drive past the corner nearest this afternoon's memorial by the Governor of Colorado. Protesters stood there with these signs: "FAGS KILLED THEM". This congregation is enraged.

Columbine UU worshipped today -- Sunday. Our attendance is running double, with over 200 people in our little building. Rev. David Johnson came from Kansas and spent the weekend fielding calls, helping with worship, and counseling. Starr King student Diane Dowgiert is here for a week thanks to help from the UUA -- she is a beloved member we've proudly sponsored for UU ministry, and we needed her here. Other UUs from the area are also available and sending all kinds of support.

Tomorrow the survivors of the Debate Team will meet at this church with their teacher, UU Paula Reed. The funerals are almost over, and it's just beginning to feel like the horrible event itself is closing (and believe me, the event isn't over till the kids are out of the hospital, the investigators are out of the school, and the funerals are all finished). Crisis mode is ending, but a long, long road await us.

And I'm noticing teens are feeling a little stared-at. Forgive us, teenagers, if your parents and the rest of us need lots of hugs, find excuses to touch your arm, or keep looking at you so strangely. We are so glad you are here, with us.

April 24, Saturday
Last night I stole an hour with my children and we had dinner at a local restaurant. Small groups of teens would come in the door or be leaving, and every adult eye was on them. Some got up and went up to the teens to greet them -- and just touch their arm or shoulder. I knew the feeling right away. Every teen I see I want to hold and hug and tell them "I'm so glad to see you." I saw one man with a crew cut go up and introduce himself to 3 high school kids with hair shaped into 12 inch long spikes dyed blue or red.

Everywhere, everyone I've seen today looks teary. People are grateful for the memorial service Colorado's Governor has planned for tomorrow. But we have a long, long way to go before we finish with memorials. Our police, firefighters, nurses, physicians still have much to do. Our teachers are stoically carrying on to finish up the few remaining weeks of school so they, too, can stop and grieve.

I had some evidence last Thursday that our congregation might have some small connection with one of the "shooters" families. I left a message from our congregation on a card on their gate. It was seen by many reporters, and I've had many calls from the media wanting to know what I could tell them about the family. I explained that I knew nothing. Some pressed me to tell them where the funerals for those boys would be. The area clergy knew, but none of us wished to tell.

The Today show also asked me. I refused to discuss it. But they still interviewed me on why I would even approach the family. The short answer is because I'm a Universalist. I understand the interview will air Monday morning.

Tomorrow is Sunday. A UU minister from Kansas with the weekend off, David Johnson, just came, and he's fielding phone calls and is available to counsel new people who walk in. A beloved member of Columbine, Diane Dowgiert, a student at Starr King School, returned and is helping with tomorrow's service.

I ask you to support the UUA in these messages. It's because I had the good fortune to be raised UU, and so much of what I cherish about myself was deeply nurtured by the UU church in Columbus, Ohio. They gave me this faith that's carrying me through this right now. I needed them in troubled times, and so do many, many other people in this world. Please support this faith. It makes a difference.

April 23, Friday
Dear Friends,

Only in these past few hours is this week's tragedy becoming all too real to the people of this neighborhood. Most are reaching out, learning neighbor's names, spending an additional moment with a store clerk to be friendly, calling and talking with each other. Many are enraged, too. Conservatives are blaming Liberals, Liberals are blaming Conservatives -- and this, my friends, has got to stop.

I was, I think, the first clergy at the scene. I saw children with blood on their clothes, scenes of murder in their eyes, parents whose lives were in shreds, and when the Denver SWAT team came in, after being relieved by other area SWAT teams, I looked in their eyes and knew from the tears that it was very, very bad.

I held hands of strangers and prayed. Parents looked at me, waiting for me to tell them what to do. I told them that they were doing the best possible thing they could: they were waiting at the official meeting place for parents and students, and there was no where else to be.

I've been on the phone almost non-stop. I've got what I call "phone-ear" it's so sore from the receiver. I have good colleagues all around the UUA who are letting me cry and vent. The UUA has been wonderful support and an anchor for me and Columbine UU Church this week. Support our Association. I sure am grateful for it today.

April 21, Wednesday
Dear Friends in our UU Faith,

Here in Littleton we are receiving your calls and emails, and need them in this terrible tragedy.  Your messages give us solace.

While no UU children were killed, our children and teachers -- UUs among them -- had to hide in terror and watch classmates and students die.  We have only begun to overcome our stunned disbelief and will need your thoughts and prayers in the weeks to come.

Several Unitarian Universalists will be appearing on national television in the coming days, among them Dr. Susan Dressel, Rev. Joel Miller, and Columbine H.S. Teacher Paula Reed.

After speaking last night on national television and expressing my anger and dismay at those who believe guns are an acceptable method of solving problems, Columbine UU Church has also received many abusive pro-gun calls and calls from "Christians" complaining that I did not use the opportunity to demand that Christian prayer be forced upon our public schools.  Our nation needs this faith we share now more than ever!

You can do something for us.  First, Columbine UU Church is a New Congregation, and there are hundreds of people who will have a UU church where there was none before.  People need us; please reach out to them.  Start more UU congregations.  Also, understand that this isn't somebody else's problem but a problem for us all, and as Unitarian Universalists talk and pray and think in your communities and congregations about what this means for us and what we can do about it.

Sermons

"The Heart and the Web" - sermon by Lark Matis Ruffner, Minister of Religious Education, Jefferson Unitarian Church, Golden, CO

Memorial Service for those killed at Columbine High School:
"We Are Born for Love" - homily by Rev. Joel Miller, Minister, Columbine Unitarian Universalist Church, Littleton, CO

"Blame Only Blamers" - sermon by Rev. Joel Miller

"Love Grew a Columbine" - Intergenerational Sermon by Diane Dowgiert, seminarian

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