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Newtown school shooting: year of trial, and grace, for local faith community

In the year since the Newtown school shooting, the town's faith communities have become important hubs for residents. Congregations are witnessing how the trials of that dark day are producing extraordinary fruit – much of it sweet but also some sour.

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The Rev. Mel Kawakami came out into the congregation to meet and greet during the United Methodist Church's Sunday service on Feb. 17, 2013, in Newtown, Conn. The church has helped the community heal after a gunman killed 20 children and six adults in the local elementary school in December 2012. After the shooting, the church was open for prayer, and the congregation brought meals and comfort to those affected.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor

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Christmas has returned to the heartsick village of Sandy Hook, where a school massacre one year ago overwhelmed the holiday season. Children are now performing the pageant that was canceled last year at Newtown United Methodist Church (NUMC). Congregants are once again singing joyful carols outside the homes of shut-ins.

But traditions have changed to reflect a community that is at once healing and still traumatized.

The pageant hour has moved from morning to night, so as not to suggest it’s business as usual around here. Carolers no longer ride in a school bus: “That would have been too much,” says the Rev. Mel Kawakami, senior pastor at NUMC. Even accepting gifts doesn’t feel right to clergy and lay leaders this year: They’re asking for donations to local groups instead.

“It starts to feel like reclaiming Christmas,” Mr. Kawakami says. “But we wanted to be able to do something different.”

As Newtown, Conn., remembers the 20 children and six Sandy Hook Elementary School staff members gunned down on what’s known here as “12/14,” survivors are coming to terms with how they – and their town – have been changed forever by the tragedy.

For the townspeople, their approach to Christmas is how they approach many things now: keeping routines and traditions, but with alterations. As they tread these altered paths, many are relying on religious communities to provide guideposts and light.

Indeed, since the Monitor last wrote in March of NUMC and its parishoners' efforts to help the town heal, Newtown’s faith communities have become ever more important hubs for connecting, sharing experiences, and just not being alone. As partners in a long journey, congregations are witnessing how the trials of 12/14 are producing extraordinary fruit – much of it sweet but also some sour. The challenge now is to encourage the healthy, manage the difficult, and navigate the tensions that come with a unique set of growing pains.

“We’re trying to incorporate, to integrate, what happened last year into our routines and who we are,” Newtown First Selectman Pat Llodra said at a press conference this week. “But I’m not certain we’ve defined what’s normal yet.”

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In the home of Barb and Rob Sibley, a fourth-grader and two first-graders know what happened at their school last year: A man broke in and killed 20 first-graders, plus six adults. They know their mom hid behind a dumpster during the shooting and their dad, a volunteer firefighter and an EMT, helped with emergency response.

Now they ask a lot of questions about heaven, Mrs. Sibley says. They wonder what heaven is like, who will be there, and what people in heaven remember about being loved on earth. They also ask whether their Sandy Hook Elementary School, which was relocated to nearby Monroe and is guarded by armed security, is safe.

“I assure them with absolute confidence that they are safe, they are protected, and nothing like [12/14] will happen to them,” she says. “But there’s that little voice inside my head that’s saying, ‘You can’t really promise that.’ I mean, I am promising it to them, but I know it’s a promise I might not be able to keep.”

Around Newtown, kids struggle with nighttime fears. One boy who pulled a girl to safety on 12/14 still has trouble sleeping, according to family friend Sharon Poarch, because he feels guilty that he didn’t save more classmates. One mother, who asked not to be identified, says some first-graders are wondering: “Now that I’m in first grade, does this mean it’s my turn to die?”

Clergy see firsthand how time hasn’t yet healed all wounds. Problems such as anxiety, substance abuse, domestic violence, and marital strains seem to be on the rise in Newtown in the wake of 12/14, according to Kawakami. The Newtown Interfaith Clergy Association is working with the local school district to help manage social ills that can be typical after tragedies, according to the group’s coordinator, the Rev. Matthew Crebbin.

Coping with the massacre’s aftermath “creates an added layer of stressors on top of those that people already have,” says Mr. Crebbin, who is senior pastor of Newtown Congregational Church. For instance, one person in a couple might feel it’s time to stop talking about 12/14, while the other needs to keep discussing it at length. Relationship stress intensifies.

While some have found help in mental health services, others have sought comfort in messages of faith. Worship attendance is up from fall 2012 by about 40 percent at Congregation Adath Israel, a Conservative synagogue, and by some 20 percent at Newtown Congregational Church, a United Church of Christ community. Other houses of worship report similar increases.

Wendy Leon-Gambetta, co-lay leader of NUMC, has struggled with anxiety, especially as the anniversary has approached. Lately she’s avoided crowds. She recalled having “nonsensical” fear at a volleyball game when a young man dressed in black and carrying two long equipment bags entered the stands.

“I was planning what I would do and how I would yell out,” Ms. Leon-Gambetta says. “Sure enough, it was camera equipment.... It probably took me 20 minutes for my heart to slow down.”

But Leon-Gambetta has drunk deeply of spiritual teachings in this town where the clergy association now convenes a monthly interfaith prayer service. She’s been to numerous interfaith events, including one at the synagogue, where Buddhist monks offered teachings on compassion, forgiveness, and healing. It’s all been good for her, she says.

“That light conquers darkness is a message that’s universal among the different faiths,” Leon-Gambetta says. “I just liked hearing it over and over and over again in different ways.”

People now show up in droves for social events sponsored by houses of worship. Presentations on grief topics have sometimes drawn sparse crowds, Crebbin says, but parishioners in effect grieve together at fellowship activities, where auspices are less formal.

“It may have been that two years ago, if there was a potluck after church, we’d forgo the potluck and go home to clean the garage,” Mrs. Sibley says. “We don’t do that anymore. We bring a dish. We stay for the potluck. We linger over coffee. And if the garage doesn’t get clean, then the garage doesn’t get clean.”

Some who felt isolated in Newtown before the Sandy Hook shootings have found closer community ties through faith. Members of Newtown’s Bangladeshi and Albanian Muslim communities, for instance, didn’t know the town had a mosque until they saw a Muslim representative praying at the post-shooting interfaith service last December, according to Eman Beshtawii, co-founder of Al Hedaya Islamic Center in Newtown.

Soon the mosque was becoming crowded at Friday prayers, Ms. Beshtawii says. Mothers bonded over common fears. Would their children be safe on school buses? Would Hedaya’s mosque and school become a target of local anger after the massacre? She found the opposite: Muslims, having shared in Newtown’s unthinkable pain, now feel they belong as never before.

“Before [12/14], this was the town I live in,” Beshtawii says. “But I’ve discovered that this is my town.... I am part of this town. I am not somebody from outside who happens to live in this town. This horrific event brought this identity to me.”

Some residents are learning to embrace, with help from faith organizations, what it now means – on a global stage – for them to be from Newtown. But it’s been a tough adjustment for many.

Telling someone you’re from Newtown now triggers shock, tears, or somber conversations with strangers. Some have started saying instead that they’re from the Danbury area, Crebbin observes. Ms. Poarch says her teenage son opted not to write his college essay about his response to the shooting because he “didn’t want to play the Sandy Hook card.”

But some youths from Newtown Congregational Church have taken ownership of their town’s freighted status, aiming to leverage it for good. They’ve launched a program to share a biblical message of perseverance with area faith communities. When the church’s high-schoolers went on a mission trip to Pittsburgh last summer, they wore T-shirts with a quote from Dawn Hochsprung, the late Sandy Hook principal: “Be nice to each other,” it read. “It’s all that really matters.”

“They said, ‘We want to do that, and we want to make the shirts green [one of Sandy Hook’s colors]. We want to be from Newtown,’ ” Crebbin says. “It’s infused with different meaning now.”

Just as residents differ in whether to claim their town’s public profile, they also have diverse ways of working through matters of healing – which don’t always mesh. That’s creating challenges for faith communities, who’ve found that the facilitation of healing isn’t a one-size-fits-all project.

At Congregation Adath Israel, helping Newtown heal has been a priority. The synagogue hosted a forum for healers of various stripes – talk therapists and therapy dogs among them – to share what they do. The congregation also “felt we had to innovate,” Rabbi Shaul Praver says, by taking a mourning prayer that’s normally said by surviving kin for a year and instead having the whole congregation say it together on a weekly basis.

On Friday evenings, the Jewish congregation creates a town-hall atmosphere and sometimes discusses shooting-related issues, from gun regulation to mental health access. Opinions differ. Not everyone agrees with the National Rifle Association member who speaks his mind. A doctor argues that certain mental illnesses are unfairly linked to violence.

In this, Mr. Praver says, the congregation practices how to discuss charged issues with respect and love. But providing such a forum comes with trade-offs. Some stay away. The 12/14 event is still too raw.

“You literally pray your way through it,” Praver says. “In a community prayer, you could candidly say, ‘God, give me the strength to lead these people. They have such different needs. Please let them forgive me.... We’re all doing our best.’ ”

As Newtown passes the one-year mark, many still wrestle with what to do with anger and bitterness. More than a few, at least for a time, turned their vitriol on the late Nancy Lanza, the gunman’s mother, whom they accused of raising a monster, according to Kawakami. He says he hoped the gunman, Adam Lanza, would face a severe fate before God.

But he, like some others in town, has moved to a different place. He sees parents reaching out with compassion to other parents who perhaps can’t handle a mentally ill child. He hopes divine mercy might be sufficiently wide to include Mr. Lanza. He says he'll leave it to God whether Adam Lanza should be forgiven, yet he won't be disappointed if he is.

“If your soul is so wounded that you can’t forgive, much less think about moving on, then you can’t do anything,” Kawakami says. “I’m not sure I have the chance anymore to hold on to the grudge, the anger, or the desire for revenge. If I take seriously the wideness of God’s mercy, then I have to let go of that.”

Allowing room for some anger and bitterness to linger beyond the first anniversary might be OK to a point, in Crebbin’s view. What’s important, he says, is to ensure that such feelings don’t sabotage personal growth.

The varied paths to healing will perhaps be audible on Saturday morning, when churches ring bells to honor those lost on 12/14. NUMC won’t bow to pressure to ring it just 26 times, but will instead ring it 28 times, including rings for Nancy and Adam Lanza. And the people of Newtown Congregational Church won’t keep count, as they did last year. Their bell will simply ring on and on – for Newtown and for humankind.

“We’re just going to ring it,” Crebbin said at the press conference this week. “We remember and honor those that lost lives. But this has impacted our entire community.... We want to remind ourselves, as part of our faith life, that we’re praying for all kinds of people that were affected.”

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