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.