The Sunday morning after Columbine, Jeffco churches are “packed.” After services, at a nearby shopping center, seventy thousand people arrive to mourn in public along with the Colorado Governor Bill Owens, Christian pop singer Amy Grant, Vice President Al Gore, and Reverend Franklin Graham—Billy Graham’s son. Local pastors speaking at the event implore mourners to “seek Jesus.” Reverend Graham invokes Cassie Bernall’s name, claiming she’d “stood before a gunman who’d transported her immediately into the presence of God” when her killer “held her at gunpoint and asked if she believed in God.” Cassie answered “Yes,” and was “promptly shot in the head.” Cassie Bernall’s story is repeated by Vice President Gore, and the country, in the days after the event, becomes “transfixed” by it.
A religious fervor sweeps through Jeffco in the wake of the attack. The community is already a devout one, but people’s sense of loss and desperation in the wake of the attack gives rise to a feverish and visceral search for answers from religion.
Cassie is being hailed as a “martyr,” and local preachers see an opportunity “to unabashedly save more souls [and] pack [the] ark with as many as possible.” Most of the Denver clergy is “appalled” by the Evangelicals’ opportunism, but the crux of Evangelical faith is recruitment in the name of Jesus Christ—they cannot miss the opportunity this tragedy has provided them.
The tension between the goals of Evangelism—to “recruit” as many souls as possible for Jesus—and the blatant opportunism the Evangelicals engage in in the wake of Columbine causes many to balk at how the local clergy is responding to the tragedy.
Craig Scott, Rachel Scott’s older brother and a survivor of the library massacre, saw death and carnage on the day of Columbine—but he had “heard something wonderful,” too. He heard a girl profess her faith in the library, and he is responsible for spreading Cassie Bernall’s story of martyrdom. Local and national newspapers alike pick up Cassie’s story throughout the week, and by Sunday, it is “proclaimed from countless pulpits.”
Desperate to find any light in the horrible tragedy, locals seize upon what seems like the only “good” to come out of Columbine—Cassie Bernall’s martyrdom. Religious officials use her as an icon of the tragedy, a different kind of opportunism meant to demonstrate the power of faith and the “benefits” of leading a pious life.
Cassie’s parents “burst” with pride, and describe their daughter’s martyrdom as having thrown Columbine “back into the face of Satan.” They urge anyone listening to their daughter’s story to go to church—especially young people. Soon, Brad and Misty Bernall are on 20/20 and Oprah. When Oprah asks them whether they wish their daughter had said “No,” Misty says she “can’t think of a more honorable way to die than to profess your faith in God.”
The Bernall family is devastated by the loss of their daughter, but they find strength and pride in her martyrdom. They tell her story again and again to the media, which is hungry for a sensational and inspirational story like Cassie’s.