Cover Story

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.

By , Correspondent

  • Healing Newtown
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    The top image shows paper hearts, which have come into Newtown, Conn., from around the country. The lower left image shows the Rev. Mel Kawakami greeting children during a Sunday service at the Newtown United Methodist Church. This is the cover story in the Mar. 11 issue of The Christian Science MonitorWeekly.
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As soon as Barbara Sibley entered the long driveway of Sandy Hook Elementary School shortly after 9:30 a.m. on Friday, Dec. 14, 2012, she noticed something seemed wrong. Children were outside, running, yelling, and waving their arms as if to signal her. She wondered where their teacher was and drove on to deliver the book her third-grade son, Daniel, had forgotten at home.

She parked and found more strangeness: an eerily quiet building, a shattered window, and an old hatchback car parked in front of the school with all the doors left open. Then she heard a series of staccato "pop pops" that sounded like roof construction. Suddenly, she and another mother who was there realized what it was – gunshots.

"The gunfire started again, and it was just relentless," Ms. Sibley recalls. "It was right there. We just ran."

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They clasped hands and crouched behind a dumpster. Unsure whether Daniel was alive or dead, she frantically called her mother, then her husband, Rob.

"I'm on my way," he said. A volunteer firefighter and town employee, Rob Sibley was among the first on the scene, and one of those to be assigned a life-altering task. But first he found Barbara. They embraced. Then, he put on his gear.

State police had secured the building and were asking emergency medical technicians to see if anyone was still alive in what by now had become clear was a horrific mass shooting. As an EMT, Rob was trained for such a gruesome task. But he needed reinforcement. He called his father, Robert Sibley.

"He basically said, 'I don't know if I can do this,' " recalls the elder Sibley, a retired police officer. "I said, 'Rob, you have to. You're a trained professional. You're an EMT. You have to and you can. Trust me.' "

Rob later called his mother, Jane, minister of visitation at Newtown United Methodist Church. "He said, 'it looks like there could be as many as 30 [dead], and most of them are children,' " the Rev. Sibley said. "Then he wept for a while. And then he'd say, 'Just keep praying, Mom. Keep praying.' "

As crying students and teachers left the school, attempting to do so in an orderly line, Barbara spotted Daniel. "I was so relieved," she says. Their family had survived. But like everyone else in Newtown, their lives would be unalterably changed by the trauma. Those old lives, rooted in a small-town sense of security as comfortable as a quilt, would now be ripped asunder and forced to make way for something new, something almost unfathomable.

The tiny Newtown village of Sandy Hook was left to cope with the unthinkable: 28 dead, including 20 six- and seven-year-olds; 6 school employees; the shooter, Adam Lanza; and his mother. Since then, a community marred by tragedy has reached out to each other and to God for strength, much as the Sibleys did in those frantic first moments behind the dumpster.

The impulse to connect drew Newtown United Methodist parishioners immediately to church, where they shared tears and hugs within hours of the event. In coming weeks, congregational life would give them far more than the comfort they sought at first. In a community upended by chaos, the church would provide sanctuary and guideposts for parishioners to wrestle with some of the most profound questions of life – about their ties to each other, about their sense of community, about their personal values, about their relationship to the divine. The church became an ark to protect them from an invasive outside world and a place to confront their anger and confusion and grief. Some have even started to forge new identities in ways that trauma experts say only a crisis can engender.

This is the story of how one church has tried to help heal a town.

* * *

Newtown United Methodist is in many ways a classic-looking New England church. Steepled and spare, it is housed in a white clapboard building, circa 1850, that sits back from the main street leading into Sandy Hook. It is a multigenerational church that blends the traditional and progressive – stressing service, fellowship, and tolerance.

Its leader, the Rev. Mel Kawakami, a salt-and-pepper-haired pastor with two Harvard graduate degrees, preaches on Sundays from an iPad and greets his parishioners with a hug. When congregants recite the doxology, they don't sing the traditional "Praise Father, Son and Holy Ghost" but instead give it their own spin: "Praise God in wonder, joy and love."

Since that fateful day in December, those sentiments have been tested as never before. Just moments after the shooting, volunteers readied the church basement hall, at Rob Sibley's instruction, to serve as a Red Cross staging area for victims and first responders. Jane Sibley raced back from an out-of-town errand to find a state trooper standing guard with a rifle at the church nursery school. Pastor Kawakami, clad in his familiar white collar, rushed to the firehouse near the school, where parents waited anxiously to be reunited with their children.

The Apostle Paul "talks about praying unceasingly," Kawakami says. "I never appreciated that phrase as much as I have from that moment on."

Inside the station, Kawakami consoled parishioners: a first responder and his wife, who is a teacher and had been meeting with colleagues when the shooting erupted. Two of the people who had been in the meeting, including the principal, were killed. Kawakami embraced the woman, he recalls, and listened to her shocking story.

Outside, the only parents remaining were those not reunited with their kids. All feared what that might mean. Kawakami waited with them, but he couldn't soften the grim revelations to come.

"The governor came out and said that if you haven't been reunited yet, you won't be," Kawakami says. "That was a heartbreaking moment. At that point, we got the sense of the dimensions of this." His gestures of comfort were "not with words as much as a hand on the shoulder, because then, hugs didn't feel right, either."

The news was wrenchingly personal for everyone. Newtown United Methodist members Steve and Rebecca Kowalski had lost their son, first-grader Chase, a fun-loving youngster who'd been a regular in Sunday school. Kawakami tried to reach out to them, but they weren't ready for a pastoral visit. Instead he walked the few blocks back to his church in the village center, where some 200 distraught people would soon lay flowers at the altar and keep vigil.

Outside the church, the quiet was unsettling after an afternoon of endless sirens, traffic, and helicopters. The Red Cross had no visitors because first responders stayed at the scene. Jane Sibley watched the trooper outside the nursery school sob as he heard the death toll.

"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."

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.

* * *

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."

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.

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."

* * *

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.

"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."

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.

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."

"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.

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.

"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."

Even Valentine's Day was difficult this year. Feb. 14 marked the two-month anniversary of the shooting. For many, the holiday's commercial trappings felt hollow, Kawakami says. It was a day for pondering the harder parts of love, including loss.

Church members are confronting challenges beyond emotional healing. As the country once again debates the role of guns in society, Newtown, willing or not, has been thrust into the center of the dispute. It has hit some of those who sit in Newtown United Methodist's pews.

While Poarch feels impelled to march in Washington, Barbara Bloom says new gun restrictions "would greatly increase the illegal arms market and do more harm than good." Agnew believes it's "not a good thing [to] use this tragedy to push an agenda." Kawakami aims to stay out of the fray.

"I want to be careful [not to] talk about social justice and advocacy in a way that's divisive," he says.

Another challenge is a good but sensitive one: figuring out what to do with a surfeit of donations pouring in from both near and far. In one week in December, Newtown United Methodist's collection plates took in $26,230. Dozens of individuals and churches have sent checks, including one from a congregation in Georgia for $40,000. The church won't use tragedy-related gifts for operating expenses, says Mr. Thomas of the staff-parish relations committee, but big decisions await nonetheless.

* * *

As difficult as things are now, experts say that Newtown residents will likely emerge more buoyant and compassionate from this ordeal, particularly if bitterness and resentment don't become habits of the heart.

Research shows those who've lost a loved one to violent death are more likely than others to experience "post-traumatic growth" by becoming more altruistic and resilient, according to Neimeyer.

"It is a documented phenomenon that with pain may also come gain," he says, "but it is not automatic and it is not immediate."

The church is doing what it can to soothe and repair souls. For Lent, two women's groups are exploring how five New Testament women were healed through encounters with Jesus. A men's group is launching a new chorus, which will soon be singing in worship. The youth group is planning to start meeting more often, perhaps twice a month, with activities focused on serving people in need.

"We just feel this is going to be extremely healing for all of us," says Kathryn Wolf, a youth group volunteer.

Through it all, the community is discovering a new intimacy with God, Kawakami says. Whether they're counting blessings or asking why, church members have God on their minds and in their hearts. The pastor has gone through something of his own transformation. The Harvard-trained Kawakami says he related to God more intellectually before the tragedy, but now he's come to connect with the divine in a more heartfelt way.

"I've absolutely needed God more than I ever needed God before," he says.

And his flock is learning to sing again. On a recent Sunday, the congregation chorused together: "Still in grief we mourn our dead." But the hymn didn't end there.

"Use the love Your Spirit kindles," they harmonized. "Still to save and make us whole."

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