It's hard to read any of the sermons that the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. preached about death and heaven without hearing echoes of gunshots.
"The minute you conquer the fear of death, at that moment you are free," he said, in 1963. "I submit to you that if a man hasn't discovered something that he will die for, he isn't fit to live."
Decades later, these words still inspire faith and courage, said social activist Johann Christoph Arnold, who marched with King in the Civil Rights Movement. That's why the patriarch of the nine Bruderhof communes in the U.S., England and Australia included this quotation in his most recent book, "Seeking Peace."
This was the book that Cassie Bernall and other teen-agers at West Bowles Community Church were supposed to have discussed on the evening of April 20th. After that tragic day at Columbine High School, Bernall's parents showed Arnold her copy of "Seeking Peace," with its handwritten notes for the study session that was never held.
Cassie had boldly underlined King's thoughts on death. Did she hear echoes of gunshots?
"Why did those words speak to her at such a young age? It is such a great mystery," said Arnold. "But I do know this. She had found something she was willing to live for, and even to die for, and that made all the difference in her life."
Here is what Cassie wrote, in a 1998 note her parents discovered after her death: "I try to stand up for my faith at school. ^?I will die for my God. I will die for my faith. It's the least I can do for Christ dying for me."
Cassie Bernall was one of the Columbine students who was asked, at gunpoint, "Do you believe in God?" Her story has been spread by news reports and chains of Internet sites hailing her as a martyr, in the true sense of that ancient title in Christendom.
Now, her mother has written her own tribute, entitled "She Said Yes." Because of the ties between Cassie, her church and Arnold's writings, Misty Bernall's 140-page memoir has been published by the Plough Publishing House, which is linked to the tiny Bruderhof movement, with its commitment to pacifism, simple living and the sanctity of life.
In the wake of Littleton, many Americans - politicians, preachers and pundits - keep arguing about the "larger issues" that supposedly led to the bloodshed, notes Misty Bernall. She is convinced parents must focus on more personal issues closer to home.
"Why, when parents and lawmakers are calling for gun control and an end to TV violence, are our young crying out for relationships?", she asks. "Why, when we offer them psychologists and counselors and experts on conflict resolution, are they going to youth groups and looking for friends? Why, when everyone else is apportioning blame and constructing new defenses, are they talking about a change of the heart?"
Nevertheless, "She Said Yes" makes it clear that Cassie's parents repeatedly had to say "no," as they pulled her away from peers involved in the occult. Her mother reprints passages from letters in which Cassie and a friend pondered suicide and murder. The Bernalls taped telephone calls, searched their daughter's room, took evidence to the police and, finally, moved to another neighborhood. Cassie raged against it all, until her life was changed during a church youth retreat.
Brad and Misty Bernall refused to give up, noted Arnold, and made radical changes in their own lives, as well as in the life of their daughter. All of this took time, energy and sacrifice. Cassie's new life was rooted in weekly patterns of fellowship, prayer, reading and service projects with her family and new friends. They ate pizza and went skiing, but also helped leukemia patients and built homes for the poor. Cassie traded vampires and "death rock" for poetry and photography.
"Cassie would never have said 'yes' in that final moment, unless she had said 'yes' so many other times before that," said Arnold. "She had to say 'yes' to many wonderful experiences in her new life, before she had the strength to say the ultimate 'yes' when that moment came. We must not forget that."