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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 5 of 8)

"Many people are involved in the process of asking: 'Who am I now in light of this loss? Who are we now collectively? What now matters?,' " Neimeyer says. "Out of the pieces of the old life, we are challenged to quilt another one."

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For the people of Newtown United Methodist, the tragedy and its aftermath have kindled a dialogue with the deepest chords of their faith tradition. They've returned to familiar hymns and Scriptures, only to find it all sounds different, as if rendered in a new language that they're just now learning to speak.

"When you're talking on Christmas Eve about Christ coming again in our future, and people are weeping, that says there is something much more profound here than a 'Merry Christmas,' " Kawakami says. "People are feeling [the Christmas story] on much different levels than they may have before."

The congregation's challenge, they increasingly realize, is to learn to sing a new song as a people who endured disaster, then emerge stronger and better for it. To that end the church is giving them music to test and space to rehearse, both figuratively and literally.

"I've spent a lot of my faith career singing, listening to music and just appreciating it," says Rob Sibley, an accomplished tenor. "Since that day, there has been no music in my life that has been able to place me back in touch with my faith – except for those glimpses at church, where sacred music begins to want to bring you back."

* * *

As weeks passed and the new year took hold, Jane Sibley noticed a telling pattern on Sunday mornings. Parishioners would pick up their name tags as usual, then accidentally wear them upside down. First one did it. Then another. Then a third. One day she realized she had done it, too.

"We're all upside down," she observed with a congregant, in a remark descriptive of the community's overall state.

To reset inner compasses and foster healing, Newtown United Methodist in January moved to reclaim and reinterpret its identity as a church that emphasizes service and tolerance. This meant trusting in a safe space, such as the fiercely guarded sanctuary, and in a providential God to bring forth whatever's needed – even if it's not in a conventional way.

Rethinking practices began with the junior and senior high school group. The regular January outing for church teenagers was scheduled to be laser tag, a game involving pretend guns. While popular with the youth in past years, laser tag struck organizers as a bad idea so soon after the tragedy. One reason: The bereaved Kowalskis' older children might feel awkward and not attend.

Instead, the group chose one of the family's favorite activities: racing go-carts. It worked. The event drew 30 participants, including the Kowalski children and parents, who kept racing even after the group left at 9 p.m.

"It wasn't an event for [the Kowalskis], where they would have needed to feel, 'Oh, you're doing this just for me'," says event organizer Mr. Agnew. "There was no pressure. No one went to them and said, 'Hey, how are you doing? Is there anything I can do?' None of that. Just have fun."

Then the church began a new outreach to neighbors who'd experienced the strain of December in different ways. In addition to grieving losses, many of them had felt captive in their homes as traffic jams added hours of travel time to any trip. Local retailers missed out on crucial December sales because no one felt like shopping. One restaurant closed as a result of lost business. News trucks had occupied the center of Sandy Hook for a week. No one wanted to be assaulted by reporters.


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