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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 G. Jeffrey MacDonaldCorrespondent / March 10, 2013

  • Healing Newtown

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.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor

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newtown, conn.

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.

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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."

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.

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