By Sam Hodges*
Through singing and preaching, praying and counseling — as well as sharing hugs and shedding tears — United Methodists in the Denver area responded to Friday’s school shooting at Arapahoe High School.
“I had grown men crying on my shoulder, saying that their sons and daughters were students at Arapahoe,” said the Rev. Ryan Canaday, associate pastor at St. Luke’s United Methodist Church in Highlands Ranch. “We had one family where the wife was a teacher at Columbine (High School) and the husband is a math teacher at Arapahoe, so for them it was a double whammy.”
On Friday, authorities said, 18-year-old Karl Pierson entered Arapahoe High School in the Denver suburb of Centennial, armed with a shotgun, machete and three Molotov cocktails. He was reported to be looking for his debate team coach.
Pierson shot a fellow Arapahoe senior, Claire Davis, in the head before fatally shooting himself. Davis remains in critical condition in a coma, her family said in a statement.
For many in the area, including United Methodists, the tragedy prompted excruciating memories of the nearby Columbine shootings in 1999. The area also felt the shockwaves again on July 20, 2012, when a gunman killed 12 people in a movie theater in Aurora, another Denver suburb.
Supporting students, parents, teachers
This past weekend, three United Methodist Churches near Arapahoe High School scrambled to offer support to shaken students, parents and teachers, some of them a part of that school or other schools that were on lockdown Friday after reports of the incident.
Karl Pierson’s mother, Barbara Pierson, is a member of one of those churches — St. Andrew United Methodist in Highlands Ranch. Karl Pierson was not a member, but apparently attended occasionally in years past with his mother and other family members, said the Rev. Gary Shockley, senior pastor.
Shockley said a member of the church staff had been in touch with Mrs. Pierson, and that the church expects to assist with Karl Pierson’s funeral. Details haven’t been finalized.
About 40 Arapahoe High School students, some of them good friends of Claire Davis, are active members of St. Andrew, and the congregation also includes parents, teachers and a policeman who was one of the first-responders to the shooting, Shockley said.
The church’s director of youth ministry, Cindy Klick, was among those offering counseling to Arapahoe High School students on Friday. St. Andrew made its fellowship hall available Saturday and Sunday for prayer on behalf of Claire Davis and her family and the Pierson family.
On Sunday, Shockley preached, telling the congregation that while happiness depends on circumstances, joy is rooted in knowing “God is, and loves us as we are, no matter the circumstances.”
He noted in a phone interview that he was feeling “a little lost” this Advent, given not only the Arapahoe High School shooting but also his imminent departure from the church for a position with the Western North Carolina Annual (regional) Conference.
“It’s fair to say that happiness eludes us on many fronts but we have this promise of joy,” he said, summarizing his Sunday message.
Not letting fear rule
At St. Luke’s United Methodist Church, some 200 students from four local high schools — though not Arapahoe High School — began arriving early Friday afternoon to prepare for a long-scheduled holiday concert under the auspices of St. Luke’s Performing Arts Academy.
James Ramsey, director of music and arts at St. Luke’s and executive director of the academy, said, “A lot of the kids were coming in crying,” having heard the news.
The local school district decided not to cancel its own special events that night, so the academy concert went on as well, with two performances that night.
Ramsey said certain, long-scheduled parts of the program, including using a recording of the radio address President Franklin Roosevelt gave after the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the singing of “Peace, Peace, Silent Night,” combined with the students’ focused, poised performance to create “a healing moment.”
“It was almost a gift from the students, because they were in community with each other, supporting each other, and they were in a safe space,” he said. “It created one of the most amazing concert experiences I’ve been a part of in a long time.”
Canaday was there for the concert.
“Here are 200 high school students modeling a different way to respond,” he said. “It wasn’t about letting fear be the ruler. They were singing about peace and hope, and it was a very prophetic message at a poignant time.”
Canaday himself had been scheduled to preach Sunday on finding hope in times of hopelessness, with a reference to the earliest Christians and their struggles living within the Roman Empire. He kept the theme but rewrote the sermon to refer specifically to the Arapahoe High School shooting.
His church, too, is full of people with direct connections to the school.
“It was a pretty sobering time for our congregation,” he said of Sunday service. “Lots of tears.”
Littleton United Methodist Church, in Littleton, Co., just five miles from Arapahoe High School, also opened for prayer after the shooting and held a prayer session at a local coffeehouse.
The church has older parents whose children had been at Columbine High School in 1999. They stepped forward to console and counsel parents of students at Arapahoe High School.
“During our Sunday school hour, we had both sets of parents being able to share and talk together,” said the Rev. Trudy Robinson, pastor.
She called those encounters “one of the beautiful things” emerging from a sad time.
*Hodges, a United Methodist News Service writer, lives in Dallas. Contact him at (615) 742-5470 or firstname.lastname@example.org.