The shooting at Columbine High School on April 20, 1999, shocked the nation to its core. It's been 20 years since two students entered the Colorado school and committed unimaginable acts of violence, killing 12 students and one teacher before turning their guns on themselves.
Sadly, Columbine was hardly the end of our nation's school shooting epidemic, with atrocities unfolding again and again over the past two decades. Americans have desperately sought answers and have endlessly debated the root causes of such unrestrained evil.
Survivors of these events are often left to forge on and find healing, grappling with the effects of what they've seen and experienced. As a journalist, I've often wondered how people recover, what role forgiveness plays and how hope can be found amid the ashes.
I learned the answers to these questions — along with some deeply powerful lessons — when I traveled with Pure Flix last summer to Littleton, Colorado, to film interviews for "After Columbine," a new digital series about survivors' journeys of faith, hope and forgiveness.
Here are just three of the powerful lessons I took away from co-directing this life-altering project:
No. 1: Faith can guide us through the most unimaginable storms
Columbine survivors have undoubtedly taught me that God can truly guide us through any storm. It's one thing to claim to believe this truth, but it's an entirely different phenomenon to see it play out in the lives of real people who have been deeply impacted by violence.
What the victims and their families faced that fateful April morning was unfathomable, but many of them credit God with their survival — and their ability to overcome the odds.
Craig Scott, a Columbine High School sophomore at the time who was in the library where the majority of the carnage took place, is a devout Christian. He also has a phenomenal story from that day, revealing that he heard a voice that guided him to safety after the shooters committed horrific acts inside the library.
"I asked God to take away my fear because I literally felt like my heart was going to stop beating and in that moment I felt relief from my fear," he said. "And about a minute later, I heard a voice speak to me and told me to get out of there."
Scott said that he felt free from his fear and that he stood up, saw the shooters left the room and yelled to his fellow students to leave. In the end, that voice literally saved lives, as the kids left the library just in time.
"If I didn't listen to that voice I think more of us would have been killed," he said. "The shooters ended up coming back into the library."
For survivor Evan Todd, who was shot inside the library, faith was also a sustaining force. He recalled praying to God to end the carnage as it unfolded, and he came to embrace Christianity more fervently in the years that followed.
Todd juxtaposed the evil he saw that day with the hope and grace he sees in the Christian faith.
"I saw so much death and destruction and hate and anger that seeing the opposite in the Christian faith is something that's really comforting," he said. "Because when you see that much death and destruction, it's put into perspective — the love and compassion that God and Jesus have to offer."
No. 2: Forgiveness can set us free
Forgiveness is a struggle for so many of us, but it becomes deeply convicting to consider that some Columbine survivors chose to forgive the shooters. Scott and Todd, among others, shared in "After Columbine" about the pain they faced, with Scott detailing the negative impact that refusing to forgive initially had on his life.
He told me something that stuck with me, though: "You can't hold onto your past and grab onto your future at the same time." It's a profound truth that too many of us fail to recognize in our own lives, as we ceaselessly cling to grudges and past pains.
A refusal to forgive hurts the victim more than it does the perpetrator. Pastor Bruce Porter — a preacher who comforted victims after the shooting — said it best when he spoke in our interview about the power that comes with forgiveness.
"It's difficult to forgive but not impossible with God's help. I've heard it said before that a person who forgives is free," Porter said. "The person who refuses to forgive is like someone who drinks poison and hope someone else dies."
If these victims can forgive after the horrors they faced, any of us can do the same in our own lives, regardless of our circumstances.
No. 3: We aren't defined by what we've gone through
Many Columbine survivors have done amazing things with their lives. Consider that Todd and Scott travel the nation and speak to young people and adults about their experiences. Their goal? To make the world a better place.
Missy Mendo, another former student, helps run the Rebels Project, a phenomenal organization that seeks to help victims who have gone through similarly traumatic events — and Coni Sanders, daughter of beloved teacher Dave Sanders who was killed during the shooting, is now a psychologist who works to reach violent offenders.
These survivors have taken the tragedy and horror they faced and are now helping others. It's a stunning testament to the power of the human spirit to persevere and triumph. Todd, who believes that the good has won out, left me with a great deal to think about.
"That day was … a cloudburst of epic proportions that was so full of death and destruction, but in the end so many people from Columbine have turned it into helping other people and serving other people and sharing messages of hope and comfort," he said. "The good that has come from it is so much greater than the evil — and to me it just shows that good in the end always wins."
You can watch the powerful stories for yourself in "After Columbine."