God Got Us Through This

Ben Strong was leading the prayer group at his school when another student pulled out a pistol and went on a deadly shooting spree. One year later, Ben reflects on finding hope in the face of tragedy.

by Mark Moring

When Ben Strong and Michael Carneal arrived at school on that Monday morning almost a year ago, both of them knew exactly what they wanted to do.

Ben wanted to pray with his friends. Michael wanted to shoot them.

And so at 7:37 a.m. on December 1, 1997, Ben and about 35 other students gathered—as they did every morning before the first bell rang—in the front lobby of Heath High School in West Paducah, Kentucky.

There they stood, huddled together, holding hands, singing songs and talking to God.

While they prayed, Michael, a 14-year-old freshman, stood nearby, calmly putting in earplugs. As soon as the students said, "Amen," Michael pulled out a pistol and started shooting.

The first bullet hit Nicole Hadley, a 14-year-old freshman who was a popular basketball player. Nicole crumpled to the floor and later died.

Michael pulled the trigger about 10 more times, sending more students to the floor. Three girls died—Nicole, 15-year-old Kayce Steger, and 17-year-old Jessica James. Five other students were injured, including one girl who remains paralyzed from the chest down.

The whole time Michael was shooting, Ben kept yelling, "Mike, what are you doing? Put the gun down!" But Michael ignored him and kept pulling the trigger.

Then the principal, Bill Bond, who heard the shots from his office, came running into the lobby. Michael took aim at the principal. But before he could pull the trigger, Ben stepped in front of Michael and demanded that he stop the shooting.

This time, Michael listened. He put the gun down, then slouched to the floor and told Ben, "I can’t believe I did that." Soon, police arrived, arrested Michael, and took him away.

The principal says Ben is a hero.

"I have no doubt that Ben saved my life," says Mr. Bond. "There was one bullet left in the gun, and I know it was meant for me."

A hero? Ben disagrees.

"Not me," he says. "I was just reacting to what was happening."

Just reacting? That was no ordinary reaction. There aren’t many people who would do what Ben did.

"That took courage," the principal said.

Courage may have been Ben’s first reaction, but in the following days, his reactions were more typical: shock, grief, confusion, pain.

But never did he get angry at God.

"I guess I never thought of it that way," says Ben. "You don’t know why stuff like this happens, but it does. And you can’t really do anything to change that. You can change how you react to it, but you can’t change the past. And you need to remember that God is always in control."

Ben says the tragedy has made his faith stronger, and he’s never doubted God’s love, even for a second.

"God is the only one who got us through this," he says. "God’s always there for us, no matter what.

"If I wasn’t a Christian, I don’t know how I’d react to something like this. It would be easy to just go nuts. But when you have God in your life, something like this forces you to lean on him even more."

Especially when it came to forgiveness. Ben says he forgave Michael "immediately."

"I’m not saying I wasn’t mad at him, because I was," Ben says. "But I knew that forgiveness was the right thing to do. You can’t hang on to bitterness, because it’ll ruin the rest of your life. I forgave Mike because that’s what God wants us to do."

Ben’s not the only student who has forgiven Michael. Many others have publicly forgiven Michael. Within days of the shooting, some of them had put up a huge banner at the school that read, "We forgive you, Mike!"

None of the students from the prayer group have spoken with Michael since the shooting, but several, including Ben, have visited the Carneal family to express their love and forgiveness. "We’ve got to remember Michael’s family," Ben says. "They’re hurting too."

A tragedy like the one that occurred in West Paducah can affect people in drastic ways.

It can tear them apart. Or it can bring them closer together. Which is just what happened with the prayer group at Heath, says Ben.

"We’ve all leaned on each other, prayed for each other, talked about it a lot," he says. "We’ve needed each other’s support to get through this."

Other students—including many non-believers—noticed the group’s solidarity. And they wanted to be a part of it.

Before the shooting, about 35 people regularly attended the morning prayer sessions. By the end of the year, that number was up to at least 100, says Ben, who was the group’s leader before graduating last spring.

"All kinds of kids started coming to the prayer group," says Ben. "Now, I don’t want to say that everything is peachy, because it’s not. There’s still some underlying stuff that a lot of people are dealing with.

"But other kids are curious. They’re seeing the hope that we have in God. They’re saying, ‘If there’s that much hope in it, there has to be something in it for me too.’ Some kids were coming to the group and getting to know God for the first time."

That’s the most important thing to Ben, an evangelist at heart. Since the tragedy, Ben has been asked to speak in churches around the country. He readily accepts, and he has told his story many times.

At one church service in Ohio, about 200 students approached the altar after Ben spoke. They decided to take the step of faith and follow Jesus.

That thrills Ben to the core.

"People are getting saved," says Ben, who has known since he was 12 that he wants to be a preacher, just like his dad. "To see kids get saved, to encourage kids, that’s what I like to see."

Ben has had a year to reflect on what happened that tragic morning in December, 1997.

He says he’s learned a lot of things in the wake of it all. And he wants to share those things with others.

"Some of the kids at my school realized this thing was so close to them," says Ben. "They realized life is real, and life can sometimes end quicker than we thought it could."

So, Ben wants to get the word out about getting right with God.

"I want to tell people about Jesus," he says. "I’ve learned it’s important to stand up for God no matter what happens. God’s always there for you, no matter what.

"As Christians, we have to live our lives strong, and be faithful to God. He’ll always be there with us."

Just as God was for the three girls who died. Ben says the others in the prayer group have been comforted by knowing that Nicole, Kayce and Jessica are now in heaven.

"It hurts to see them go," Ben says, "but to them, there was no better way. They were praying. As soon as they said. ‘Amen,’ they saw the face of God."


 

Used by Permission of Campus Life copyright 1998.