By Melanie Ave
With a large white cross on its front lawn, Shepherd of the Hills Lutheran Church and School sits one block from Arapahoe High School in Centennial, Colo.
About 12:30 p.m. Dec. 13, an armed student gunman on a mission to harm a teacher entered the suburban Denver school and started shooting.
Minutes later, a Littleton, Colo., crisis-response coordinator rushed to Shepherd of the Hills and asked if Arapahoe students could come to the church, recalled the Rev. Dr. Brad Stoltenow, the church’s senior pastor. The school district needed a place for the students to stay until the teenagers could be safely reunited with their parents or guardians.
The church soon became a safe haven for about 1,800 terrified students who had been evacuated after shots rang through the school.
“Literally within minutes, and by minutes I mean two or three minutes, our facility was packed,” Stoltenow said. “At any given time, we had upwards of 3,000 people on our campus.”
Authorities said Arapahoe student Karl Halverson Pierson, 18, brought a shotgun, machete, bandolier of ammunition and three Molotov cocktails to Arapahoe with the goal of getting revenge on his debate teacher, who also was the school librarian.
A 17-year-old senior girl suffered a serious gunshot wound and two others suffered minor injuries. Pierson set one of the devices off inside the library, igniting some bookshelves, before killing himself.
Although several LCMS students attend Arapahoe and other congregation members work at the school, none was injured in the shooting.
But the church, its staff, lay leaders and council played a key role in the shooting’s aftermath, offering Christ’s mercy in a community crisis that quickly became national news and heartache.
“We all had the opportunity to be God’s own hands and God’s own feet, working through the service of so many of these people,” Stoltenow said of the 1,000-member church. “We were very, very glad to be part of the community.”
Doug Ullmann, executive for administration for the LCMS Rocky Mountain District, praised the church for its leadership and outreach following the shooting.
“Pastor Stoltenow and Pastor [Greg] Zillinger are to be commended for the tremendous job they did,” Ullmann said.
Stoltenow described the scene at the church as both chaotic and calm, surreal and too real.
Shortly after the school official asked to use the church, Arapahoe students and staff members filled the Shepherd of the Hills gymnasium and sanctuary. Sheriff’s deputies stood guard at the major entrances and exits. Anxious parents, many pulled from their busy days by frantic texts and calls from their children, filled the church parking lot and lined up outside as they waited to take their children home.
Volunteers, including the LCMS Rocky Mountain District staff, brought donations of blankets, food and water.
Helicopters and emergency vehicles buzzed outside. Major news outlets like Fox and CNN called the church’s main office, seeking details of the shooting.
LCMS Disaster Response officials reached out to offer assistance.
For more than four hours, Shepherd of the Hills staff members comforted and prayed with anyone who needed it, Stoltenow said. The church’s licensed counselor met with about 100 people who requested help.
The night of the shooting, LCMS Rocky Mountain District President Rev. Allen D. Anderson sent a letter to district pastors.
He wrote that the shooting was yet another example of a fallen world. “Yet we praise and thank God for our congregations and our communities that reach out in mercy as they witness Jesus Christ letting all know this is our life together,” he wrote, “they are loved and prayed for.”
A nearby LCMS congregation, St. John’s Lutheran in Denver, sent pastors and leaders to Shepherd of the Hills to help.
“We saw a lot of very frightened, very scared kids,” Stoltenow said. “We needed people who could pray with kids, pray with parents.”
The day of the shooting, church officials posted a picture of Arapahoe parents waiting outside for their children, with this note: “This was the scene outside our school and church today. What was happening inside was the love of Jesus being shown by our staff to many scared students and parents. Please pray for all the students at Arapahoe and for our school children who experienced a lock-down.”
One woman wrote in reply: “Shepherd of the Hills, as an AHS parent, I am so, so grateful for your quick action and hospitality. Thank you, thank you for providing a safe haven for our children!!”
Another woman wrote: “Your church community and staff really rose to the occasion. The folks I encountered were calm, centered and helpful.”
Once students were cleared to leave the church with a parent, their names were read over loud speakers throughout the church.
Even after the immediate crisis and chaos ended, Stoltenow said Shepherd of the Hills continues its outreach.
The church has invited all Arapahoe High School families to stop by if they “need to talk, cry, have someone to listen to” them. “Our doors are open!” the church posted on its Facebook page.
The shooting occurred on the eve of the Newtown, Conn., school shooting one-year anniversary in which 26 people were murdered. It also brought back memories of the Columbine High School shooting in 1999, in which two students killed 12 students and one teacher.
One Arapahoe student wrote a first-person account in The Denver Post. He talked about looking up at a giant mural of Jesus in the Shepherd of the Hills’ gymnasium and wondering where God was in the tragedy.
“He was there in the form of our teachers,” the student concluded. “Of our students. Of the churches, businesses and parents who immediately came to our aid.”
That student, Stoltenow said, was reason enough for the church’s mercy. “You talk about why we do what we do,” he said. “Bam — it’s there.”
Stoltenow said congregations never expect to be involved in a crisis but they should.
“I think in the world we live in, we need to be aware that these kinds of events happen,” he said. “I think it is a good reminder to our Missouri Synod congregations to think of ourselves as part of the solution, part of the help, part of the comfort.
“It’s good we consider ourselves to be on the front line. This is what it means to live as a Christian, to live as a Lutheran.”
Melanie Ave is a staff writer and social media coordinator for LCMS Communications.
Posted Dec. 18, 2013