The people of Paducah, Kentucky, have responded to the tragic shootings at Heath High School in a number of ways — grief, anger, sorrow. But for many close to the three young people who lost their lives when 14-year-old Michael Carneal attacked a morning prayer group, there has been another response: forgiveness.
“At school they put up a big sign the second day that said, ‘We forgive you, Mike,'” said the Rev Robert Strong, pastor of Concord Assembly of God in Paducah. “And I know it’s God that they can forgive him. It’s definitely God, because we couldn’t do it on our own.”
Strong’s son Ben is a senior at Heath High School, and president of the Agape Club, which met monthly. In that capacity he led a weekly Bible study, and a daily prayer circle in the hallway before the start of classes each day. It was that prayer circle that was the focus of Carneal’s Dec. 1 attack, which began just as the prayers concluded. By the time Strong managed to run up to Carneal, push him against a wall and persuade him to drop the gun, three girls were fatally shot and five other young people wounded.
But even the surviving victims are committed to modeling the forgiveness they have received from Christ, including Missy Jenkins. Jenkins is paralyzed from the shooting. “When Ben and some of the teenagers went to see her at Lourdes Hospital,” Pastor Strong remembered, “she said, ‘I want people to know that I forgive Mike. And I want you to do the same.’ And this forgiveness, I believe with all of my heart, is not the result of just emotions, but it’s a reality with these people.”
The message of forgiveness was also spoken at St. Paul’s Lutheran Church, which Carneal’s family attends. The Rev. Paul Donner preached from Luke 3:1-6, which discusses John the Baptist’s preparation for ministry. “His preparation was repentance,” said Donner. “But repentance includes forgiveness, so we’ll be talking a little bit about forgiveness.”
Students said Carneal was a self-professed atheist who sometimes mocked praying students. But Sheriff Frank Augustus has rejected the suggestion that the attack was motivated by Carneal’s religious beliefs. “I’ve had no proof of any type of cult or atheists. I’ve heard just rumors of everything and I’ve seen no proof of any of that,” he said.
Carneal told investigators that he had seen something similar to his shooting spree in the 1995 movie “Basketball Diaries,” in which a teen dreams about shooting students in a Catholic high school.
Ben Strong has asked permission to speak with Carneal, who is being held at an undisclosed location. His hope is to share God’s forgiveness with the troubled teen. “I guess I’d talk to him like a friend,” he told the Assemblies of God news service, “and I’d let him know we forgive him. Just let him know we’re there for him.”
In the days following the shooting, school officials brought counselors in for grieving students, and also opened the school doors to pastors and youth leaders. “We just went back into the schools and walked through the halls and let the kids come up to us,” Pastor Strong said. “Many of them did come up and say, ‘Look, would you pray for me?’ We just put our arms around them, embraced them, and prayed for them. Others just needed someone to embrace them and hold them and let them cry. It’s just been incredible what’s taken place in this community.”
Ben Strong added, “You know, this last couple of days, there hasn’t been ‘a prayer group’ — the school has been the prayer group. I’ve seen people come together like you’d never see them come together.”
Brittney Thomas, who was standing only a few feet away from one of the girls who was killed in the shooting, agreed. “The whole school is now turning to God. It’s not just a little circle anymore,” she said.
Thomas said the prayer group is committed to claiming victory over this tragedy. “I don’t want them to say, ‘Yeah, I remember Heath. They’re the one [school] where all those kids died,'” Thomas said. “I want them to say, ‘Yeah, I remember Heath. They’re the one with the prayer group of 400 and didn’t let one incident ruin their life.'”
Ben Strong has had many opportunities to pray with students this week. “I even had a guy follow me into the band room,” he said. “We didn’t play because of everything that happened. He explained how he had fallen away from God and he was wanting me to pray with him to get that relationship right. And I’ve prayed with many others. God’s doing a major thing.”
Members of Strong’s church say that God already did a major thing — by protecting Ben. “Last Sunday night many of our people had left, but some of us were still at the altar praying,” Pastor Strong recalled. “My wife just really felt a burden on her heart that it was one of those times when God wants to minister something wasn’t done. She felt troubled in her heart. And she asked one of our brothers, a gentleman that just got filled with the power of the Holy Spirit, to come and pray. And we just stood in a circle and he came and prayed for me. Then she said, ‘I want you to pray for Ben.’ And all this man said… he was praying in the Spirit and then he came and put his hands on Ben’s shoulders… and he said, ‘Protect him, Lord. Protect him, Lord. Protect him, Lord.’ Over and over and over, ‘Protect him, Lord.’ That was the extent of his prayer.
“Of course, by all means, after the tragic event Monday morning, you better believe that it came right back to me. And I just give God the glory and praise for folks sensitive to the Spirit of God. It made me know one thing. We should never passively pray.”
Ben Strong was the opening speaker at the Dec. 5 funeral service held for the three girls who died. He said, “In a sense, they died for what they believed in. It hurts to see them go, but to them, there was no better way. They were praying. As soon as they said, ‘amen,’ they saw the face of God.”
— E.P. News