"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.
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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."