To evil, she made the perfect answer.

by: Matt Labash


But there wasn’t anything wrong with her looks. She had crystal-mint eyes, McIn-

tosh cheeks and a smile that should’ve netted her an Ultra Brite contract. “You tried to tell her how pretty she was and she got mad at you, says Amanda Meyer, 16, Cassie’s best friend.

Cassie dressed for school that day in a turquoise shirt with a white undershirt, her favorite jeans and her beat-up Doe Martens. A little past 11 am., she walked to the library to study Macbeth for an English class two periods away.

Around 11:30 a.m., a teacher barreled through the library doors, frantically screaming that someone was shooting students. Eighteen-year-old Eric Harris and 17-year-old Dylan Klebold had started their killing spree outside the Columbine

High School cafeteria, and by the time they blasted their way into the library, wearing ammo belts and carrying guns, most of the library patrons had ducked under the tables. Of the 13 murders, ten took place in this room.

One of the gunmen spotted a schoolmate cowering under a table, cried “Peekaboo,” then shot her. One identified football player Isaiah Shoels as “a nigger,” then shot him in the head as he begged to go home. Crystal Woodman, a 16-year-old junior from the same church youth group as Cassic, huddled with two friends whispering prayers for protection. She would later say the killers “whooped and hollered like it was a game.

The gunmen worked their way around to Cassie, who, like the rest of her classmates, was hunched under a table, visibly praying. One of the gunmen asked her, “Do you believe in God?”

“It was really cruel the way he said it,” says Joshua Lapp, a 16-year-old sophomore who was hiding some 25 feet away. “It was almost like Satan was trying to talk through him.” Cassie paused before answering. “Yes,” she replied.

Not satisfied with her answer, the gunman asked, “Why?” Before Cassie could respond, he shot and killed her.

It is natural enough that after such a bold stand, Cassie Bernall has been portrayed as a martyr for her faith, not just by friends and family, but by everyone from Al Gore to Franklin Graham (son of Billy).

Some skeptics might assert that Cassie’s death, though tragic, does not rise to martyrdom. Getting shot by a couple of crazed geeks who were murdering all corners may not reach the dramatic demise of our first-century martyrs: Stephen stoned outside the city gates while praying for his executioners, Peter crucified upside down. Some suggest that Cassie might not even have been targeted, that she’d have been shot regardless of her answer, as were so many others.

To this her youth pastor Dave McPherson answers, “I turn that around and say, Why did they ask her? Because they knew what she was.

What she was has emerged in obituary roundups. Cassie was a devout believer who loved writing and photography. She carried a Bible to school, and her favorite film was Braveheart (the story of the Scottish patriot William Wallace, who battled Edward I, and who for his trouble was drawn and quartered).

But everything one really needs to know about Cassie can be found by driving out to the western edge of Littleton , Colo. where the West Bowles Community Church abuts the low-slung, snowcapped foothills of the Rockies.

It is here that Cassie Bernall’s funeral was held, with overflow crowds flooding the aisles and anterooms . Some were strangers who came from as far away as Florida to see the closed casket of the brave girl who died proclaiming her faith. Others were beefy ex-Crips, drug addicts and felons from the rough Five Points section of Denver.

There, Cassie used to go for one-on-one chats with street converts who had rap sheets longer than her hair. This is the church where her parents brought her two years ago, and not of her own volition. An adolescent rebellious phase had taken an ugly turn, and Cassie started fancying a crowd not unlike the one Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold favored.

She was trying drugs and contemplating suicide and dabbling in witch-craft. Her worried parents forced her into a sit-down with pastor McPherson, whose prognosis was bleak. “She was disconnected. She wasn’t going to listen to anything.”

McPherson recommended that her parents administer a shock-treatment regimen: Withdraw Cassie from school to get her away from her old friends. Her parents agreed and enrolled her in a Christian school and camp. Says her 22-year-old youth leader, Jeremiah Quinonez, “Before, you could hardly get her to smile. When she came back (from camp], she was glowing.”

While Cassie often belittled her looks, her new smile was regarded as her best feature. That, or the waist-length blond hair that almost ceased to be . “She wanted to cut off her hair and give it to this place that makes hair for kids who go through chemo,” says Sara Romes, a 15-year-old member of Cassie’s youth group.

Sitting in her church, canvassing her friends, I hear story upon story similarly celebrating Cassie’s selflessness. In fact, her desire to serve is at least partly responsible for her being in the building where she lost her life. After her conversion, Cassie insisted on leaving her Christian school and enrolling in Columbine, where she could make more of a difference.

As her friends share Cassie’s correspondence and conversations, one senses that the last days ofher life may have been preparation for her death. In a letter last summer to her friend Cassandra Chance, she wondered about her life’s purpose, a perpetual concern: “Some people become missionaries, but what about me? What does God have in store for me?”

One day after a long discussion with trigonometry classmate Craig Nason about trusting in God, she greeted Nason with four note cards filled with exhortations pulled from sources as varied as C. S. Lewis and Johnny Cash. Above her signature, she copied a translation of Luke 6:38: “If you give, you will get! Your gift will return to you in full and overflowing measure, pressed down, shaken together to make room for more, and running over.”

The day after Cassie died, her brother found a poem on her dresser. He gave it to Dave McPherson, who included it in her funeral program. Cassie wrote:

                     Now I have given upon everything else—I have

                     found it to be the only way to really know Christ

                     and to experience the mighty power that brought

                     him back to lfe again, and to find out what it really

                     means to suffer and to die with him.

Just days after she wrote the poem, that’s precisely what she did. And as police officer Wayne Depew walked through the library carnage, having almost lost a son himself in the massacre, he saw Cassie lying on her back under a table. Depew didn’t even notice the bullet hole in her temple. Instead, he says, her hands were clutched to her chest, as ifin prayer.

“She had a real soft look on her face with a slight smile,” he says. “This is my opinion, but she looked as if she had accepted God in her life.”

Dave McPherson says that her death should be celebrated as well as mourned. “A week ago, I couldn’t have even mentioned God in school, and now everybody wants to talk about God. Cassie gave us the opportunity.”

As for whether Cassie will enter the pantheon of martyrs, McPherson seems unconcerned: “She was just like every other teenage kid. She wanted popularity, thought maybe she weighed a little too much, when she would dance she wasn’t in tune. Cassie wasn’t perfect. But you don’t have to be perfect to be a martyr.

You just have to be prepared, and Cassie was.”



 August 1999. (Pgs. 53-60)

Volume 155. No. 928

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