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.
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The Kowalskis' driveway was filled with visitors' cars. Kawakami joined the crowd sharing condolences. Once again, no words could suffice, he says. All he could offer was his presence and the assurance of God's as well.Skip to next paragraph
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While church members sought solace and healing in acts of service, they had not yet reckoned with changes emerging in themselves. But raw emotions and reassessments were evident when the congregation came together in worship.
On Sunday, Dec. 16, the church was packed as 471 worshipers – more than three times the usual number – squeezed into two services. Hymns drew tears, as did the moment when young children gathered near the altar for a message. Kawakami's sermon included themes of God's comfort in times of trial and the need, ultimately, to forgive, but he assured them, "I'm not ready to do that yet."
During Communion, co-lay leader Wendy Leon-Gambetta held the chalice, as she had many Sundays before. But this time was different. When she looked into the eyes of parishioners who came forward one by one – a first responder, a Sandy Hook teacher, a school bus driver with one less passenger on her bus – she realized the Sacrament had taken on new meaning. She felt a new gravity in the solemn words she spoke to each one: "This is the blood of Christ shed for you."
"I'd pull myself together, and then there would be someone who had been there at the school, or someone with small children," says Ms. Leon-Gambetta. "We all felt so vulnerable.... Communion was the affirmation of faith. God is still here. We are still standing."
Barbara Sibley was among those coming forward for the Sacrament.
"I walked up to get Communion and just broke down," she says. "I was alive. My kids were alive. And we were here getting Communion. It was an overwhelming feeling."
In that moment, some of the people of Newtown United Methodist started sensing how much had changed, and not just for the families who'd lost children. This most familiar of rituals suddenly felt new – and more significant than ever before. Why?
Robert Neimeyer, a psychologist at the University of Memphis in Tennessee, who studies healing after murders, says the Sacrament hasn't changed. The people have – and that's why church rites can seem completely different.
"We [survivors of violence] may find ourselves being different," Mr. Neimeyer says. "Suffering has always prompted human beings into a review and revision of who they are and what they do. [And] the greater the tragedy, the greater that prompt is."
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For the people of Newtown, the past three months have meant grasping for an elusive "new normal."
It's not unusual anymore, Rob Sibley says, to see someone burst into tears at a gas station, or for a Dunkin' Donuts customer to pay for everyone else in line. At his home, dirty dishes routinely wait now because playing the board game Candy Land with their three young children has become a higher priority for him and his wife.
For many, the quest for a new equilibrium means purging ingrained habits that suddenly feel shallow or selfish, Neimeyer says. Some will need to reinvent who they are, sometimes by embracing moral values anew. Against the backdrop of violent death, he adds, hostility and other self-centered traits can suddenly seem shamefully inappropriate. Shame can inspire repentance, a theme of the Lenten season that began Feb. 13.