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Cover Story

How one church is helping heal Newtown

Members of the Newtown United Methodist Church have turned to faith – and each other – to surmount a mass shooting.

(Page 2 of 8)

This is the story of how one church has tried to help heal a town.

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Newtown United Methodist is in many ways a classic-looking New England church. Steepled and spare, it is housed in a white clapboard building, circa 1850, that sits back from the main street leading into Sandy Hook. It is a multigenerational church that blends the traditional and progressive – stressing service, fellowship, and tolerance.

Its leader, the Rev. Mel Kawakami, a salt-and-pepper-haired pastor with two Harvard graduate degrees, preaches on Sundays from an iPad and greets his parishioners with a hug. When congregants recite the doxology, they don't sing the traditional "Praise Father, Son and Holy Ghost" but instead give it their own spin: "Praise God in wonder, joy and love."

Since that fateful day in December, those sentiments have been tested as never before. Just moments after the shooting, volunteers readied the church basement hall, at Rob Sibley's instruction, to serve as a Red Cross staging area for victims and first responders. Jane Sibley raced back from an out-of-town errand to find a state trooper standing guard with a rifle at the church nursery school. Pastor Kawakami, clad in his familiar white collar, rushed to the firehouse near the school, where parents waited anxiously to be reunited with their children.

The Apostle Paul "talks about praying unceasingly," Kawakami says. "I never appreciated that phrase as much as I have from that moment on."

Inside the station, Kawakami consoled parishioners: a first responder and his wife, who is a teacher and had been meeting with colleagues when the shooting erupted. Two of the people who had been in the meeting, including the principal, were killed. Kawakami embraced the woman, he recalls, and listened to her shocking story.

Outside, the only parents remaining were those not reunited with their kids. All feared what that might mean. Kawakami waited with them, but he couldn't soften the grim revelations to come.

"The governor came out and said that if you haven't been reunited yet, you won't be," Kawakami says. "That was a heartbreaking moment. At that point, we got the sense of the dimensions of this." His gestures of comfort were "not with words as much as a hand on the shoulder, because then, hugs didn't feel right, either."

The news was wrenchingly personal for everyone. Newtown United Methodist members Steve and Rebecca Kowalski had lost their son, first-grader Chase, a fun-loving youngster who'd been a regular in Sunday school. Kawakami tried to reach out to them, but they weren't ready for a pastoral visit. Instead he walked the few blocks back to his church in the village center, where some 200 distraught people would soon lay flowers at the altar and keep vigil.

Outside the church, the quiet was unsettling after an afternoon of endless sirens, traffic, and helicopters. The Red Cross had no visitors because first responders stayed at the scene. Jane Sibley watched the trooper outside the nursery school sob as he heard the death toll.


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