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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Barbara Sibley did her best to reestablish the rhythms of her life. She helped three children adjust to a new school. She kept her marketing business going. But reminders of Dec. 14 are everywhere. Whenever she gets in the car, she passes two or three homes of neighbors who lost children. Green ribbons on posts, stars on telephone poles, bells hung in trees – all remind her of what has vanished.Skip to next paragraph
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"No matter where you go in town – the grocery store, the drugstore, the dentist office, the school – there's somebody who lost someone," she says. "I have to work to stay focused on whatever it is that I'm doing – 'oh yeah, I'm here to shop. I'm here to pick up bananas.' "
Perhaps nothing has been worse than the recurring fears that haunt many residents, especially at night. At the church's Sunday school, which has swelled from 50 to 70 children since December, one young newcomer suffers from what Jane Sibley calls "night terrors." His father found him a special teddy bear that lights up when it's squeezed.
When she mentioned the bear to other parents at church, some hoped it could help their kids, who've struggled with their own anxieties.
Many adults are still coping with emotional repercussions, too. Church member Ms. Manville talks at least weekly with one friend, a teacher, who was in the school during the shooting. Her friend remains shaken, she says, but hasn't had time or space to fully process it.
"She's totally a wreck," Manville says. "And she can't get away from it because they're back at school now.... She's still trying to work through the whole thing."
Barbara Sibley is grappling with recurring fears as well. "I had never been that scared in my life," she says. "It will take me a while before I stop going back to that moment and being so afraid."
Many townspeople also struggle with a gnawing sense of guilt. Poarch is concerned, for instance, about a 7-year-old boy who pulled a girl to safety in a bathroom. He now feels bad, she says, because he didn't save more of his classmates.
Manville knows staffers at the school and parents who lost children. She knows Adam Lanza's brother, Ryan, who was a friend of her son's. These ties make the event personal, but she refuses to seek professional help in a community besieged with mental-health needs.
"It's almost like I need therapy, but I don't go because I wasn't directly affected – my children are still alive, I wasn't at the school," Manville says. "I think the whole town feels like this."
Though residents appreciate the love and support people have shown for the town, these special acts, too, can stir complex emotions. On one recent Saturday, kids enjoyed a free festival that included magic acts, face painters, and people dressed as cartoon characters. The next day, local children played floor hockey with members of the Boston Bruins.
"To a certain population it feels like, 'I don't deserve this special treatment,' " says Kawakami. "They think, 'I wasn't in the school and my kids weren't in the school, and now they're getting autographs from the Boston Bruins...?' "
"But for some people," he adds, "that will be a part of their healing."
As personal struggles persist, parishioners continue to lean on God and trust in structures of church life to guide them. On Wednesday, Feb. 13, they received ashes on their foreheads, a sign of mortality and the arrival of Lent's solemn 40 days until Easter.
"Ash Wednesday was a tough one because it's so penitential," says Kawakami. "It already feels like we need Easter. We don't need Lent."