In Jonesboro, still healing

BY SUSAN KIM | JONESBORO, Ark. | May 10, 2002

"I'm someone who's supporting what's happening in their lives."

—Father Jack Harris

There's little obvious

evidence now that four years ago four students and a

teacher were killed here. Westside Consolidated School

brims with activities and the thriving personalities of

its 1,600 K-12 students.

But there's evidence of ongoing healing wrapped in the

presence of Father Jack Harris, a regular at the

school's concerts, games, and practices.

Life changed for the priest at the Blessed Sacrament

Catholic Church -- and everyone else in Jonesboro -- the

moment two students opened fire. He was called to the

scene that awful day because he was a minister.

But that's not why he stays, he said, explaining he is

on campus "because students have decided they can use my

presence to their benefit," he said.

It's a relationship that's unusual in a time when court

cases over school prayer, fear of proselytizing, and

current sex abuse scandals in the Catholic church have

driven an unquestionable wedge between clergy and


He's not paid by the school system but his voluntary

efforts have won the approval of students, school

administrators, and parents.

What is he providing? He doesn't want to call it

spiritual care. "I'm someone who's supporting what's

happening in their lives."

He considers what he's doing "thoroughly in the mental

health arena" as opposed to the more controversial -- at

least when it comes to public schools -- category of

spiritual care. He never wears what he calls "clerical


He might pray with students but only if they asked him

to. And right now they don't ask. "The students don't

see me as a spiritual representative. They're aware I'm

a minister. I have no knowledge of whether they're

churched or unchurched. Less than one percent of them

would know what church I'm from. I don't come there as a

minister. I don't proselytize. I have to not go there.

It would mean I have taken some form of control."

In fact, he's so averse to proselytizing, he ends up

making statements that, if they were taken out of

context, would sound odd coming from a Christian faith

leader: "No Westside student has ever joined my parish.

I'm proud to say that."

Why, if he's not providing spiritual care, is it a

priest - and not a secular mental health worker - who's

relating to these young people?

Because -- much as he'd like to -- he can't quite hide

the "God factor" in all this. And, curiously enough,

it's the fact that's he's faith-based that's made

students comfortable. Because even if he's got a

professional connection to God, he's disconnected in all

the right ways.

When students talk to him, they're not -- at least at

Westside -- risking the stigmas of seeking mental health

treatment. "I'm safe," Father Harris said, "because I'm

not psyching them out. I'm not their counselor."

He's also a Catholic in an area where only about 1

percent of the population is Catholic.

Yet he's at Westside, he said, because the students

reacted to him, because his presence as a faith leader

"brought a form of security they were looking for."

Since the day he was called to the scene of the

shooting, "I've never stopped being involved at


But it took him many months to realize the students

needed his presence on campus. "It took me more than

half a year to realize when I visited campus something

was happening."

He turned to leaders in Joneboro's mental health

community. They reassured him that, yes, there is a

place for a priest in a public school. "They told me to

let it happen. I can't even tell you what the students

discovered. I'm here because they reacted to me."

Harris, who has had training in trauma response from

both secular and faith-based groups, also serves as a

chaplain at the Presbyterian-affiliated Ferncliff Camp

and Conference Center in Little Rock, Ark. The camp

started several years ago as a once-a-year weeklong

outlet for young people affected by school shootings.

Now the Ferncliff concept is being replicated much more

often on the grounds of the camp itself, and in roving

seminars across the nation. Teams of students from

Jonesboro and other schools have been trained to offer

peer-to-peer support when violence wracks a classroom in

any state.

Father Harris and Ferncliff's other leaders have

discovered that, after violence erupts in a school, the

healing can take years.

David Gill, Ferncliff's director, said that public

events -- shootings at other schools, local or national

debates over gun-control, or even late-blooming lawsuits

related to a school shooting -- can re-traumatize a

community that's trying to heal.

In West Paducah, Ken. -- three students were killed and

five wounded at Heath High School in 1997 -- a couple of

years later a family "brought a lawsuit against

everybody you can think of," remembered Gill, "and it

threw a huge wrench into things."

Last month, the father of a victim of the Columbine High

School retracted a much-publicized case against a law

enforcement official he accused of accidentally shooting

his son.

Sometimes lawsuits or debates over gun control, added

Gill, represent a convenient way for angry feelings to

come to the surface. After a feeling of joining together

after a disaster, there can be an emotional counter

swing. "First as a community we rise to the occasion,

and then people begin thinking about things and looking

at things. Some may be suffering from post-traumatic


That means long-term healing -- and faith-based leaders

such as Harris and Gill -- could serve a role that's

both expanded and longer-range than they previously

thought. Because who knows what event will draw media

attention -- and painful memories -- back to Jonesboro,

Littleton, West Paducah, or any other community.

And somebody has to be there to listen, added Gill, when

people are forced to say, years later, "Oh, man, I

thought we were out of the limelight."

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