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For many Littleton teens, a time of spiritual searching

In this dazed Denver suburb, students flock to churches for counsel

It often happens when tragedy strikes: People pull together, gathering in homes and, especially, places of worship to seek strength and comfort.

Littleton, Colo., is no exception, but in this tidy suburb, it's the teenagers who, in many cases, are leading the way in spiritual seeking after one of the worst episodes of school violence in American history.

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"Right now, the kids are leading us," says the Rev. Bill Oudemolen, senior pastor of Foothills Bible Church here. "What I have continued to hear from kids ... [is] they are not looking at it as if evil has won."

His congregation was one of the hardest hit - 35 families were affected by the shootings, and funeral services were held in his church for two of the slain students. "I call it remarkable that even when it first happened, the kids [at Littleton's Columbine High School] were asking, 'Is anyone religious?' and saying, 'We've got to pray.' "

Religious leaders in Littleton and Denver say spiritual thirsting among young people so far has not abated, deepening to the point that some are responding to the tragedy with a desire for real change in themselves and the community.

"What the tragedy has done is brought proof that what the kids are involved with spiritually is more than 'because mom makes me,' " says Father Jerry Rohr of Light of the World Catholic Church, where much of the initial counseling of Columbine students took place. "From what I've heard, all the kids are very open. There is the sense that we must put away barriers that divide us and realize we are all one."

Some students say they've noticed a change since the return to school last week. "Before, people kept to their cliques and didn't talk to others," says Nicole Schlieve, a Columbine junior, who adds that students have become noticeably kinder and more amiable toward others in the wake of the shootings. "It's more open now."

While not everyone here has sought help in a faith community, and it's too soon to say how long the renewed questing will last, members of the clergy report that churches have been packed, prayer meetings have been full, and many teens have sought counseling from their religious leaders.

FOR their part, the pastors have first tried to comfort, then to call consciences to account. They've taken up various issues: the culture of violence, bullying and intolerance, materialism as a substitute for family affection.

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"If we do not change the culture of violence, then there will be a double tragedy to these deaths," says Paul Kottke, pastor of University Park United Methodist Church. "We must have some serious self-examination." Mr. Kottke criticizes the National Rifle Association for its support of assault weapons, and calls on adults to challenge their own enjoyment of violence as entertainment.

To some degree, leaders in the religious community are having to stretch to meet the acute spiritual needs of teens and their parents. Many clergy people have been so busy counseling and caring for their flocks that they've scarcely paused since April 20.

"We feel the strain and the challenge," says Sarah Butler, canon of St. John's Episcopal Cathedral in Denver, "but also God's grace giving us strength."

Despite the demands, the message of love and support - and also of forgiveness - is uppermost in many of Littleton's houses of worship.

"Columbine families, we are praying for you," reads a sign outside Ken Caryl Baptist Church here. "Columbine, we love you," declares a banner at the United Methodist Church next door to Chatfield Senior High, where the Columbine students are attending each afternoon because their own school remains a crime scene.

And several pastors tell of how, from the mouths of babes, healing words have come to their congregations.

One little boy stood up at a prayer service, recounts Father Rohr, and said: "My grandma said that when there is pain, we must build a bridge. There aren't a lot of big stones right now, but maybe we can start with the small flat ones."

Father Jim Sunderland, a retired Roman Catholic priest who has aided in the counseling effort, spoke of a little girl at a prayer vigil who said, "I'm a sixth-grader. I hope we don't forget to pray for those two boys who did it, and their parents."

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