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."