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 3 of 8)
"That's what was so horrific for parents at the nursery school," she says. "We started seeing ambulances with no sirens, without anything [to do]. Dozens of ambulances were just leaving."Skip to next paragraph
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The next morning, church members began to cope with the incomprehensible weight of the massacre. Many felt helpless. But having done mission trips to hurricane disaster zones, they instinctively did what their community's pragmatic spirituality called for: Find a problem and start fixing it. The arrival of the world media in Newtown provided one.
Trustees of Newtown United Methodist rallied to protect their sanctuary from the suddenly omnipresent press of reporters, who wanted to film inside the church and quote visitors who came for quiet prayer. Keeping them out would come to define the church as a refuge from invasive chaos. It would also give parishioners, mourning from an epic breach of school and small-town security, a way to feel useful and protective.
"Families or women walking in with children would be swarmed by the press, and I would literally go out to save them," says Jay Thomas, chair of the church's staff-parish relations committee. "We would put ourselves between the press and those people."
The buffering mission focused the restless energy of men like Steve Agnew, a General Electric IT project manager and a leader for the church's Boy Scout troop. From 9 a.m. to midnight on the day after the shooting, he escorted guests to and from their cars while others kept the media out of the church.
"Natural disasters don't offend our sense of trust as much as human-caused disasters do," says Mary Hughes Gaudreau, a disaster response consultant with the United Methodist Committee on Relief, which dispatched her to help out in Newtown. Without buildings to gut or rubble to move, she says, people can feel helpless until they find a constructive outlet.
While trustees policed the boundaries, congregants trained as counselors by Stephen Ministries, a St. Louis-based Christian support group, welcomed guests who needed to talk or pray with someone. For anyone who wasn't sure what to do, Treasurer Amy Thomas would find a task.
"Sort boxes, take out the trash – do something," she told people. "Having something to do when you don't know what to do is good therapy."
Donations pouring in from around the world gave the church members hope – and occupied time. The first of 320 boxes – filled with teddy bears, prayer shawls, and other comforting items – started arriving within days. Hundreds of cards needed to be opened and shared. A Mennonite delivered seven handwritten letters from the shooting-scarred Amish community of Nickel Mines, Pa., to the church. Then a few days before Christmas, a state trooper dropped off a flame, representing Christ as the light of the world, from the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem in the West Bank.
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While lay leaders kept the church open, Kawakami visited those shaken most by the tragedy. Driving to the Kowalskis' home, he passed house after house where state troopers were now stationed around the clock. For him, troopers' vehicles were "signs that something terrible had happened in that family. And they were everywhere."