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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 6 of 8)

In mid-January, the church invited all the neighbors over for tea, to share experiences and identify community needs. The event drew some who'd lived in town for decades and had never entered the church, but now saw it as a gathering spot for mutual support. Jane Sibley recalled one woman telling her afterward: "I hope the church will get us together again."

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"The church is becoming a different place in the life of the community," she says. "Hopefully we can be known for more than our spaghetti dinners and bluegrass concerts.... We can be the face of healing and love for the community."

Individuals are reexamining who they are, too, with hopes of making something good come from a terrible event. Some changes are small. After a snowstorm, church member Sharon Poarch made a point not to berate plow drivers for taking two days to get to her street, but instead sent her daughter out with homemade cookies. Leon-Gambetta made pork-and-bean chalupas for Rob Sibley's family to make their lives a little easier.

"It made me so happy to be able to do that," says Leon-Gambetta, her voice cracking with emotion. "I can't wipe away the images that Rob [Sibley] must have in his mind. But making someone a meal is easy."

Some have thrown themselves into more high-profile pursuits. Parishioners who traveled out of state in January learned that just saying where they're from now evokes an impassioned response – "you're from Newtown?" – as well as compassion. To leverage this unsought visibility, Ms. Poarch has joined fellow parishioners Barbara Manville and Rob Sibley in advocating for stricter gun-control measures. In January, Poarch marched in Washington, D.C., behind a Newtown banner.

"We're accidental activists," says Poarch, who's never before taken part in a political movement. "I hate politics. It seems there's so much talk and nothing gets done. But I just feel like I couldn't sit and do nothing."

Her nascent activism isn't unusual. Joining a movement to prevent similar tragedies can be a first step in healing, according to Tom Johnson, cofounder of the Center for the Study of Health, Religion and Spirituality at Indiana State University in Terre Haute. Charitable service is another common response, which often brings purpose to an otherwise senseless episode.

"People are making sense of a loss," Mr. Johnson says about Newtown. "Helping others helps people adjust to deeper questions of a tragedy's purpose. They say, 'At least I can work for light, work for the good, do something to reduce the likelihood of it happening again.' "

Newtown United Methodist congregants are still finding their way and being discreet. At least four turned out at Newtown High School on Jan. 30, when a Connecticut General Assembly task force on gun violence, mental health, and school safety sought the community's input at a six-hour hearing. They considered testifying. Poarch even rehearsed remarks the night before. But all demurred. The faithful instead listened in silence that night, saving their voices for another place and time.

* * *

As February's bracing winds whipped through Newtown, the chill of loss was never far away. Early steps at healing were sometimes hampered by tough realities.


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