Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Youth Ministry In The Face of Violence

This article was originally published in Youth Ministry Update (a Southern Baptist "journal" for professional youth ministers) in early 1998, less than 6 months after these incidents had occurred. It was only a year or so later when the tragedy at Columbine High School in Colorado happened.

The original title of the article - "Teens Who Kill" - was not picked by me... but that's what happens when someone else edits your stuff. (That someone else was Richard Ross - who I respect the heck out of, btw.) Youth Ministry Update is no longer published - I am unsure of my legal rights to publish this information but am willing to take this down if I have violated my contract with Lifeway in some form or fashion.

What follows is my personal version of the article, including some slight revisions.

Monday, October 20, 1997­ - TIME magazine - "At 8 a.m. on Oct. 1, Luke Woodham, 16, bookish and overweight, drove a white Chevy Corsica up to his high school. That was already a sign of trouble: the young man had poor vision and was driven to school each day by his mother. But three hours earlier that morning, Mary Ann Woodham, 50, had been stabbed to death with a butcher knife in the home she shared with her son. Luke Woodham walked into Pearl High's commons, an enclosure created by the school's buildings. He then took a .30-.30 rifle from beneath his blue trench coat and opened fire, wounding seven schoolmates and killing two, Lydia Kaye Dew, 17, and Christian Menefee, a girl he once dated."

Tuesday, December 2, 1997­ - USA TODAY - "The 35 students who gathered Monday morning for the weekly prayer circle at Heath High School in West Paducah, KY., had just lowered their hands after the last prayer when the shooting began. A 14-year-old freshman stepped out from a group of about a dozen students who routinely heckled the worshipers, put earplugs in, pulled a loaded .22-caliber handgun from his backpack and squeezed the trigger about a dozen times in two minutes, school officials said. Eight students were hit. Three girls died."

This last fall, our nation was rocked by these two tragic incidents. For youth ministries, the occult overtones of the possible conspiracy in Pearl, Mississippi, and the potentially anti-Christian nature of the attack on the prayer group in West Paducah, Kentucky were frightening and overwhelming. "If stuff like that can happen in a suburb of Jackson, MS, and at the closeof a prayer time in Kentucky, it can happen here," was the thought that raced through the minds of many youth workers and parents.

After much prayer and study, this article focuses on interviews with two youth ministers who were involved with these incidents... not because they are somehow "saints of a higher order" (as both of them would quickly tell you), but because they have had an opportunity to experience both the presence and power of God in the midst of tragedy. What they have learned is valuable for youth ministries that deal with violence and it's aftermath, as so many youth groups do. (For example: One year ago, while serving a church in a middle class neighborhood of Nashville, Tennessee, three members of my youth group were held up while hanging out on the church parking lot. One of them was shot twice and miraculously escaped serious injury.) Moreover, the truths that Michael and Roger have learned about youth ministry serve as a challenge to all youth ministers as they seek to reach their communities for Christ.

Michael Pierce - Youth Minister, First Baptist Church, Pearl, Mississippi

Michael never even reached the school the morning Luke Woodham opened fire in the commons at Pearl High School. All of the kids who had witnessed the shooting were brought to City Hall, where officials had sent all of the ministers and counselors. "We were there to greet kids, to minister hugs and counseling... to let them know that it was going to be OK," said Michael. While none of First Baptist's youth had been injured in the shooting, the impact still hit close to home. Both of the girls who were killed had visited the church within the last two weeks.

The shooting occurred on a Wednesday morning. That night, as a part of their weekly youth service, the group took time to share their emotions and to vent their hurts and fears. Although members of the media had asked to film this meeting, Michael felt it that was not an appropriate choice.

Over the next two days, ministers and counselors were available at the school for students who wanted to talk. The pastor of First Baptist was the police chaplain, causing people to lean heavily on the church for counsel and encouragement. Over the following weeks, Michael continued to keep a presence at the school, to help the kids see familiar faces and ease their fears. As well, the counseling extended to parents and other church members. "It wasn¹t just the kid's world that was shaken," said Michael. "It was our world."

Because of the occultic nature of the crime, Jim Furr from the North American Mission Board¹s Interfaith Witness department came to help counsel and lead a seminar for the community on Satanism and the occult. Another resource of great support was the church's prayer ministry, which provided round the clock prayer support for the community. "Even though the situation was tragic," Michael said, "God taught us somuch. He gave us so many opportunities to grow and see Him at work."

Roger Palmer - Youth Minister, First Baptist Church, Paducah, Kentucky

"Several of the kids ran to me when I got to the campus," said Roger, talking about the morning of the shooting. "I didn¹t say a whole lot... I was there for support, to put my arms around them and pray with them." Nor was he alone. Pastors and youth ministers converged on Heath High School as news of the shooting traveled through the community. That night, several prayer services were held in different churches around Paducah. They were times to pray for the families of the victims and for the school and community.

The next day, youth ministers, pastors and counselors were at the school to be available to students. "I have to commend the school board and the principal," said Roger. "They reopened school so that kids could deal with the shooting and receive support from friends, teachers, counselors, pastors... it was real wisdom to get them back there to be with one another rather than off by themselves."

On that first morning back, just 24 hours after the shooting, nearly 3/4 of the student body gathered in the lobby where the prayer group usually met. A long time of stillness was followed by students sharing Scripture, prayer, and closed with the singing of "Amazing Grace". Then the principal released students to follow their normal schedules, or to seek out counseling as they needed. "God opened incredible doors," said Roger. "In groups as small as 2-3 kids to 15-20 at a time, we got to answer the question, 'Where was God in all this?' We could answer from the Scripture: 'God was right here. He¹s still right here.'"

Evidence of that began that day, as Christian students began posting Bible verses up and down the school halls. One of the students shared a message in the prayer group from Missy Jenkins (who was one of the students hit in the shooting): "Missy wanted you guys to know she's forgiven Michael (Carneal, the student who opened fire), and if she's forgiven Michael, you can forgive Michael."

On the Wednesday night following the shooting, the youth service at First Baptist focused on prayer. Following testimony from two students of Heath High School, they divided into groups to pray specifically for the families who were victims (including the Carneal family) and for God to continue to use the media as His instrument to let the world see the love of Jesus Christ. God answered those prayers, as media outlet after media outlet asked the question: "What about this forgiveness thing?"

"These kids are not forgiving too quickly, as some accused," said Roger. "They are not just spouting words. They¹re angry at the action... God is angry at the action. But the reason they can forgive is that Jesus Christ is dwelling in them. The world is not going to understand that kind of forgiveness (1 Cor. 2:14). There is grieving, there is anger, but it's different than for someone who doesn't have Christ."

Lessons We Can Learn

Both Michael and Roger spoke about how important long-term presence on the school campus was to their ministering during these stressful times. "We had the freedom to minister because we¹d been on the campus prior to the shooting," said Roger. "If you have the freedom to be on a campus, there is nothing more important to do with your time. I know what it's like to sit there for 21/2 hours, waiting to eat lunch with each group of kids, wondering if you're wasting your time. But I ministered to kids who weren't a part of my group or church... they¹d seen us there and trusted us enough to ask questions because of our presence."

Scripture was also a key part of ministering in these situations. While the youth in Paducah focused on Romans 8:28 and Psalm 46:1, the students in Pearl were drawn to other places. "Genesis 50:20 was so important," saidMichael. "Even though Satan intended harm in this situation, God can use it to bring good, to grow me in my relationship with Him. The kids also grabbed onto Jeremiah 29:11-13... their eyes would brighten when we¹d repeat that verse." No matter how sophisticated our counseling techniques, we can not forget the power of God¹s Word.

Another element common to both situations was the cooperation between ministries of varying denominations and backgrounds to minister to the pain of each community. "We have to build relationships with other churches and encourage our pastors to do the same," said Roger. "We've got to get our pride out of the way and let God do what He wants to do."

Finally, "Tragedies like this are the perfect opportunity to remind youth of Satan's power and God's control," said Michael. In fact, one of the things that echoed throughout both interviews was the number of occasions God gave for His Truth to be clearly taught and/or proclaimed. To paraphrase C.S. Lewis, pain is God's megaphone. In times of tragedy, it is much easier for people to search for answers, especially the truth about Jesus Christ.

In Closing...

There are some simple reasons that these two ministries were able to minister during these horrific situations... that both Michael & Roger and their churches were able to see the power of God in a mighty way. Both of them spent time with youth, especially on "their turf." Both hold a high view of God¹s word and it's power to teach us and comfort us. Both of them were already working with other churches in the community to minister to their respective towns. Most of all, however, both of them saw God in control. From the spiritual and numerical growth in Michael's group and church this fall to the miracle of CNN broadcasting the Paducah funeral - sermons and all - over nationwide television, God has shown that He is more than willing to fulfill Romans 8:28 and Genesis 50:20. As we minister in our churches, may we live with the same kind of awareness and faith.

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