New Life goes on 

But the area's largest church is different, a year after parking-lot killings

New Life Church will recognize the one-year anniversary of its tragedy Tuesday, with a service at the memorial site for victims Rachel and Stephanie Works. - ANTHONY LANE
  • Anthony Lane
  • New Life Church will recognize the one-year anniversary of its tragedy Tuesday, with a service at the memorial site for victims Rachel and Stephanie Works.

Near one edge of New Life Church's eastern parking lot, a memorial is nearly complete marking the spot where Rachel and Stephanie Works, 16 and 18, were slain by a gunman as they left Sunday services with their family on Dec. 9, 2007.

The display is both somber and attractive: Spruce trees stand prominently over an island of grass and pink stone. At the center of the memorial sit twin stone benches inscribed with the sisters' names and biblical passages.

"You turned my walking into dancing," one reads.

Walking near the memorial, Cason Cruz, 19, stops and talks with me for a few minutes. He joined the church late last summer, and is now completing a year-long internship here. He acknowledges that people still worry about violence at New Life, but notes, "It seems like new people still come."

Cruz continues talking for a few moments, until an armed security guard and a New Life pastor halt the conversation.

"Are you a reporter?" they ask me. "Did you check in?"

I explain that I checked in, but learn I wasn't given a security badge that is now required for reporters visiting New Life.

Guns and lollipops

The tension quickly passes as I'm led to the church's main reception area to pick up a badge. Gary Barnes, the security guard, explains that getting staff members to remember to hand them out regularly has been a struggle.

He later smiles as he explains his efforts to be visible.

"It's kind of like the robber who goes to a bank," he says. "If he drives up and sees an armed guard standing there, he goes somewhere else."

Almost equally visible: the bowl in the New Life lobby filled with lollipops the armed guard gives to kids.

A year after the shootings, this kind of dichotomy lurks everywhere amid the bustle of New Life. For instance, the church still runs plenty of programs for children, but balloons are no longer a part of them the inevitable pops were jarring too many people, explains senior pastor Brady Boyd.

Boyd suggests the church has reached a balance of sorts, moving forward while remembering what happened.

"We haven't ignored it," he says.

Good signs

Last December's tragedy happened a year after news broke about New Life founder Ted Haggard's exploits with a male prostitute in Denver. Attendance had gone down by a quarter or more in the scandal that followed, and the shootings threatened to keep even more people away.

But as Boyd notes, Cruz is right about new people coming to New Life nowadays. Weekly attendance is now around 11,000, still down from its pre-Haggard-scandal high, but reflecting an increase of about 1,500 in recent months.

And the church is reaching out in different directions. Rob Brendle, a pastor at New Life for 12 years, is now senior pastor for Denver United Church, an offshoot of the Colorado Springs church. Denver United, which started in Brendle's basement and will begin meeting on the University of Denver campus in January, will retain a connection to New Life while operating independently, Brendle says.

Brendle, who spoke often to the media in the wake of the shootings, says he learned from what happened.

"It made me take a hard look at where I put my trust," he says. "I was reminded that people fail. [They] do bad things."

Anniversary plans

The New Life shootings were actually the tail end of a rampage that started miles away when Matthew Murray, a 24-year-old who grew up in a strict evangelical household, killed two people at a Youth with a Mission facility in Arvada shortly after midnight in the early hours of Dec. 9.

Murray arrived at New Life early that afternoon, fatally shooting the Works sisters and injuring several others before he was shot by Jeanne Assam, a volunteer security guard at the church.

The El Paso County coroner ruled that Murray fatally shot himself after he was wounded.

The shooting ushered in some heady times for Assam, who was widely praised as a hero. She received multiple awards. In January, she and Boyd met briefly with President Bush when he was passing through Colorado.

Assam is still active with church security, and Boyd says she is now seeking a position with the Colorado Springs Police Department.

The church is planning events to remember the shooting on Sunday and early next week. Boyd says members of the Works family are planing to speak during Sunday services. Assam, who has declined interview requests from the Independent, also plans to speak to reporters that afternoon.

On Tuesday, Dec. 9, the church plans a 1 p.m. service at the memorial site, with a moment of silence planned at 1:03 to remember the start of the shooting.



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