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The gunman didn't pierce their faith

Teens at a Colorado church say they have no existential questions about the attack. They say Satan is to blame.

December 14, 2007|Stephanie Simon | Times Staff Writer

COLORADO SPRINGS, COLO. — Youth pastor Brent Parsley expected to be challenged: Why did the Lord let this happen? How could this be? Where was God when a troubled young man stormed New Life Church on Sunday, killing two devout teenage sisters?

"All the questions are out there," Parsley said.

Except, they weren't.

Teenagers swarmed Parsley with hugs and high-fives at an evening service this week. But they expressed no despair or doubt.

Instead, they said the attack had left them with a sense of pride -- and a quiet joy.

In a striking display of faith, teenagers of all descriptions -- punk haircuts, knit beanie caps, demure pearl necklaces -- said they had laid down their anger and fear, even their questions, to focus on worship.

"You try to find peace by putting this all in God's hands," said Lauren Miller, 14.

"God didn't do this. That was Satan attacking," said her friend, Savannah Miller, also 14 and no relation. "God protected so many people here that day."

The founder of New Life Church, the Rev. Ted Haggard, came from a Charismatic tradition that emphasizes a theology of constant spiritual warfare. Haggard spoke vividly of the devil's power; at one point, he said he had visions of demons hovering over babies, waiting to corrupt them.

When Haggard resigned last year after admitting contact with a male prostitute, many in his congregation of more than 10,000 saw his downfall as a satanic attack against the church. They took pride in pulling together in prayer and forgiveness.

To many young believers, the shooting had only one possible explanation: Satan, furious that the church had survived Haggard's downfall, was trying again. The tragedy was a test.

And they were determined to pass it, with God's help.

"The devil has been really trying to break down our church," said Tanner Vanbebber, 15. "But I think we're going to come up even stronger."

"This is building our faith," agreed Chris Gordon, 16. "We must be doing something right in this church if Satan doesn't like it."

Gordon spent most of Sunday in the emergency room comforting his best friend, whose mother was injured in the rampage carried out by Matthew Murray, 24.

At first, Gordon said, he felt scared and confused. "I was thinking, 'Oh my gosh, oh my gosh, I don't ever want to come back' " to the church, he recalled. But as he listened to his friend's family praying, he said he gained courage.

He was back at New Life on Wednesday night, just steps from the hallway where Murray was shot by a church security guard after he had killed 18-year-old Stephanie Works and her sister, Rachael, 16, and wounded three adults. With authorities closing in, Murray killed himself.

Though Gordon and other teens expressed sorrow at the sisters' deaths, they preferred to dwell on the fact that so many others in Murray's path escaped harm.

"It was a miracle," said Cody Carless, 15.

"I want to feel mourning," said Brianna McCue, 16, "but I can only feel the love all around."

The midweek service was billed as a "family meeting," and the 6,000-seat sanctuary was packed. Little children sprawled out on the floor, coloring; strangers embraced and held hands. The room seemed to pulse as worshipers rose to their feet, lifted their palms to the heavens and sang: "You are my shield, my strength . . . my very present help in time of need."

Then Pastor Brady Boyd took his pulpit on a stage decked with dozens of red poinsettias. "Look at me," he commanded. To shouts of amen, he called out: "We will not be governed by fear."

As the service ended, Boyd invited members of the congregation to meet with the counselors, social workers and pastors who fanned out with boxes of tissues. Parsley, the youth pastor, was ready with a verse from the Book of Revelation: "The devil . . . is filled with fury because he knows that his time is short."

But few teens approached any of the counselors.

"The question, 'Why did God let this happen?' is a stupid one," said Hayden Trobee, 15. "One of the cool things about New Life is, we're not quick to question God's authority."


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