As the tragic shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School began to play out in the media on Valentine’s Day, the world took notice. For Crystal Miller, a survivor of the shooting at Columbine High School in Colorado 19 years ago, the events were far too familiar. Having survived the scene of the most intense violence, she now speaks from a place of understanding and has authored Marked for Life: Choosing Hope and Discovering Purpose in the Midst of Suffering. Crystal came to South Florida to meet with students, faculty and families from Douglas and spoke at several venues, including a memorial at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton. She also shared her message of hope on February 10 during a citywide #HopeForDouglas event at Church by the Glades sponsored by First Priority, Church United and OneHope.
In opening, Miller said, “Thank you for trusting me to give you tonight maybe a tiny glimmer of hope… to let you know that it doesn’t end here,” she told the audience of students and parents, who received it with applause.
“The 17 lives that were taken to soon, beautiful lives …You now have the opportunity to take their stories wherever you go,” she encouraged. “So often I felt guilty. I didn’t want to crack a smile. I didn’t want to laugh because somehow I felt I would be dishonoring the lives that we lost that day, but I want to share with you something that freed me up to live. I was sitting with a family who lost their daughter in Columbine… and said, ‘I am sorry that I am alive and Cassie is not. I wish that it was me instead of her.’ And they said, ‘Crystal, you go, and you live your life because that is how you will honor Cassie’s life.’”
To the community, Miller said, “We grieve deeply and I understand how far reaching it is… Regardless of where you were on that day, you have a connection, and that connection matters. Your story always matters.”
To the survivors, like her, she confided, “Often it feels like you are the forgotten ones. Because of the things you saw and experienced, you are left trying to pick up the broken pieces. But I believe that messes can become messages and pain can become purpose. I understand what it is to live in this paradox of wanting to be around people but literally recoiling when someone touches you, being in a place where you are always looking around for the exit – where will I go, what will I do if it happens again? Afraid to go asleep because you will relive the nightmares of that day. I get all of that, but I also want to tell you that it will not always be this way.”
She promised, “Love is going to heal. I come to share a hope, a hope that is found in one source alone, a hope that I was able to place my feet on. I didn’t have all the answers, but I knew that I needed Jesus… . He can pull you from all the sadness, put your feet on a firm foundation and put a new song in your mouth.. that you move forward stronger, better, with hope.”
In retelling the events of the Columbine shooting, Miller recalled that as the gunmen approached, “My friend Seth pushed me under the table, sheltered me and said, ‘Crystal, I promise, I will take a bullet for you.’ And suddenly at the age of 16, I was faced with the reality of my own death. And I did the only thing I could think to do. I said, ‘God if you are real, if you are the God you say you are then get me out of here alive.’ With that the two gunmen entered the library and began their shooting rampage that lasted seven and a half minutes, but it felt like time stood still… They turned and shot the boy next to us and I thought this is it. Their boots were just inches from my body, and they started talking about how they ran out of ammunition. They had to go reload, but they were coming back for those of us who were still alive. We got up and ran out of the building…”
In reflecting, Miller said, “I escaped and when I think back on that day, there is no logical explanation of why I survived. The pain was so deep, but I had two choices, to literally throw in the towel or I could choose to live. I would cry out to God and say, ‘I can’t make it through this day. If you don’t show up I’m sunk. But God continued to say, ‘My grace is sufficient for you. My power is made perfect in your weakness.’”
She encouraged, “You are not defined by your tragedy. You are defined by the One who created you. This will not be your ruin because he can take the pain and ashes and make something beautiful.”
To learn more about Crystal’s message of hope, visit crystalwoodmanmiller.com.