September 29, 1999

Some teens hoping to be martyrs
___By Todd Svanoe &
___Greg Warner

___Associated Baptist Press
___MADISON, Wis. (ABP)--Tina Leonard sat quietly while her English literature classmates talked about the teenagers killed a day earlier in a Fort Worth church. In her heart, she guarded the secret she had carried for months.
___"God has laid it on my heart that I am going to be martyred," she later confided to friends.
___Tina, 16, thought it would sound crazy to her friends. She was surprised to find them unfazed by the idea. "When I told one of my friends, he said: 'That's awesome. I wish that could happen to me.'"
___"If you ask many teens, a bunch would say they'd be willing to die for God," says Tina's best friend, Joanna Dobbe, 15, also of Madison, Wis. "Personally, I would like to be a martyr. You would be blessed, because Jesus said, 'Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.'"
___Such thoughts shock parents and even some psychologists. But others say the popularity of martyrdom may be on the rise among Christian teens fervent about their faith and sober to the reality of violence today.
___The school shooting last April in Littleton, Colo., was a defining moment for Christian teens, say Leonard and others.
___In the wake of the Columbine tragedy and the shooting of students in a prayer group in Heath High School in Paducah, Ky., some Christian teens are asking themselves tough questions like "What if it were me?" Some teens are finding the possibility of dying for Christ plausible and even attractive.
___Such thoughts are fueled, some observers say, by the media attention given to the rash of youth violence and the hero treatment afforded its victims. The now-famous words that
Accounts differ on Bernall
__ Police in Denver are questioning whether the highly publicized exchange between Cassie Bernall and student shooter Dylan Klebold actually happened. A Sept. 24 article in Denver's Rocky Mountain News quotes police sources who have attempted to reconstruct every detail of what transpired inside Columbine High School last April. Eyewitnesses differ in their accounts of whether the question, "Do you believe in God?" was asked of Bernall or of another student, Valeen Schnurr, who was wounded but survived.
reportedly cost Columbine student Cassie Bernall her life--"Yes, I believe in God."--have shown up on T-shirts and coffee mugs.
___Meanwhile, the 13 wooden crosses erected near Columbine High School, which became a popular memorial after the massacre, are on tour across the country. Youth rallies in Atlanta, Nashville and elsewhere have attracted up to 14,000 people anxious to glimpse a tangible symbol of an incomprehensible tragedy.
___"They're a symbol of courage and boldness," 17-year-old Maris Wainwright of Nashville told the Tennessean.
___Wainwright cried when she was chosen to carry the cross of Rachel Scott, a Christian student who, like Cassie Bernall, was reportedly killed after testifying to her faith. "It was the most incredible honor, knowing she had the ultimate courage, knowing what she died for."
___Dave McPherson, Cassie Bernall's youth pastor in Littleton, said the surge of teen enthusiasm around Cassie's death is genuine. "They are challenged by her, but they are not worshipping her," he said. "But she's causing them to live closer to what they believe."
___Such enthusiasm doesn't usually lead to thoughts of martyrdom. Psychologists and youth workers say that's rare. But to some teens who see a violent world at odds with faith, it makes sense.
___"Sacrificing yourself for the glory of God is a very, very mesmerizing and very attractive thing, especially when life on earth ... is not giving one much positive feedback," said Herman Feifel, a Los Angeles psychologist who specializes in thanatology--the study of death, dying and bereavement.
___Some teen talk about martyrdom might be bravado, Feifel suggested. "Because their own sense of identity and security is not well developed, they are at risk" for such thoughts, said Feifel, an emeritus professor of psychology at the University of Southern California. "Most, if they manage to survive, manage to grow out of it."
___It's normal for children and adolescents who hear about tragedies like the shooting in Fort Worth's Wedgwood Baptist Church to imagine something similar happening to them, said Gerald Hickson, vice chair of the department of pediatrics at Vanderbilt Children's Hospital in Nashville. "It's not unusual for children to mentally place themselves in that situation somehow. It's one of the ways we process such an event."
___However, Hickson said, it's unusual for adolescents to view the possibility of a martyr's death as attractive. "That's not something I find often."
___Joy McInvale was part of a team of counselors called to the Fort Worth church after the shooting. A counselor in private practice in nearby Bedford, McInvale said teenagers today feel more vulnerable to violence.
___"Every type of trauma changes our perception of the world," she said. Violence like what occurred in Fort Worth "causes teens to believe they could be victims. ... And when it happens in your hometown, your backyard, it is more than a possibility. It is a reality.
___"I've had dozens of students say to me, 'If it could happen at Wedgwood Baptist Church, it could at my church.'"
___Fifteen youth from Ken Caryl Baptist Church in Littleton, Colo., were attending Columbine High School--about a mile away--at the time of that massacre last April. "After Columbine, they didn't feel safe at their school," said Steve Lee, their youth minister. "But after Fort Worth, they don't feel safe in their church."
___Although persecution of Christians and the targeting of Christians for violence are getting a lot of attention in evangelical circles, parents and ministers need to be careful not to exaggerate the prospects of persecution, said John Thielepape, pastor of Meadow Lane Baptist in Arlington, which sent 20 youth to the Wedgwood event.
___"We're not teaching them to pursue persecution," he said. "We want to emphasize the faithfulness. If they're faithful, persecution may come ... (but) it's more likely that someone is going to challenge them verbally than to shoot them."


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