CA town still wonders 'why'

BY RACHEL CLARK | SANTEE, Calif. | August 15, 2002

"The youth group did definitely grow in numbers and in closeness together."

—Rev. Brian Hendry

As Charles "Andy" Williams faced sentencing Thursday, the faith community in Santee, Calif., offered comfort to families still hurting a year and a half after the teen opened fire in his high school.

Williams fired his father's .22-caliber revolver more than 30 times at his Santana High School classmates in March 2001, killing two students and wounding 13 individuals -- 11 of whom were students.

"One father -- his child had seen the shooting happen -- said to me 'as bad as 9/11 was, what affected me more personally was Santana. There was something about the realization of what could happen here that shook me to the core,'" said the Rev. Jerusha Neal, who co-pastors with her husband at Santee United Methodist church.

Williams pleaded guilty to two counts of first-degree murder and 13- counts of attempted murder. The judge issued the minimum allowable sentence - 50 years to life in prison.

People in Santee weren't yet sure how to react. Neal said members of her congregation were aware of the sentencing, but that they want to move past that event.

"People saw that shooting as so much bigger," she said. "This problem was not isolated around one kid who did the wrong thing as much as it is a broader question of what's going on with the young people in our community ... what was causing this young boy so much pain and how do we make this a safe place for the rest of the community."

Santee, which has a population of about 50,000, has a small-town feel to it -- said Grace Church Rev. Steve Lamm -- so the shooting was a shock to most people.

"It was pretty traumatic, pretty difficult for the kids to process," Lamm said. "There are a few churches in town that had students who were victims. It was a real shock."

But the effects of William's actions have done more than just scare a community. They've brought people closer together.

"The youth group did definitely grow in numbers and in closeness together," said the Rev. Brian Hendry of Sonrise Community Church. "It brought a sense of family."

This act of public violence also knitted together members of different churches.

"The faith community really came together," said Lamm. "Out of tragedy came some good."

This closeness was good news to the Rev. Bobb Barnes, who had visited the Santee area a day after the shooting as a member of the Presbyterian Disaster Assistance Team. He returned a few months after the incident to hold a debriefing for local clergy struggling to deal with the impact this event had on their congregations.

"Basically, the people who were there were angry at what had happened, did not believe it could happen in their community and weren't sure how to react," Barnes said. "I didn't get a real sense of the community pulling together, but everyone's reaction will be different at different situations."

Lamm, however, said a year later the community held a memorial service. Last March, he even received a call from a pastor in Littleton, Colo., who had been closely involved with kids who been killed or injured in the Columbine incident and wanted to offer guidance.

"The things I wonder about," said Lamm, "is what do you say after a thing like this? You can't ignore the elephant in your living room and so you need to say something about it. I'm sure every pastor in town had a message to help deal with this issue and so he was a help to me."

When the 9/11 terrorist attacks occurred, some felt as if it was just too soon to deal with another tragedy. Santee has a large military community, and many were afraid they'd lose loved ones.

"The terrorist attacks just put even a little more salt in the wounds that were already in the community," Hendry said. "But it's also made people seek God and seek answers."

Like most churches across the country, the Santee United Methodist had a prayer service Sept. 11.

"To have 9/11 so soon after the shooting was very difficult," Neal said. "There was so much pain and horror. For us, as pastors, to speak about forgiveness so soon - we weren't so sure people were there yet."

Many, Neal said, are almost afraid to talk about the shooting, so since March 2001 she has prepared a sermons that addresses the "why did this happen" question.

"They're afraid there isn't going to be an answer big enough to help with their pain," she said. "But I think God is big enough to take that pain."

Hendry said he's seen a mix of reaction to the question of why the event happened. He has observed that some people really want to talk about what happened and others don't.

"At first, a lot of people wanted to talk about who to blame it on ... we don't focus on that because that's not going to do a lot of good at that moment that families are hurting," he said. "The people who are showing up here aren't so much questioning God as much as they are just wanting to find answers ... and looking for help."

A few families who attend Sonrise were directly affected by the shooting.

"They're dealing very well," said Hendry. "About as good as they can."

At Grace Church, one child who was a former church member witnessed the shootings.

"He was upset about it," said Lamm. "He wasn't directly involved, but he was a witness to the events. Our church was not as affected as some others were."

To help support students in the community, Neal said she had helped focus the congregation on connecting with and mentoring young people. Before the students returned to school this fall, members of her church held an extended prayer service.

"We took a lot of time praying with each kid and their parents over specific concerns," she said. "We're trying to model that they have an extended family, that there was a network they could turn to with concerns."

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