By Arthur McClanahan…
It was supposed to be Christmas Pageant Sunday at Newtown United Methodist Church. The joy candle was to be lit on the Advent wreath. Christmas caroling was to take place after the second service.
Instead, it was a time to weep, a time to mourn.
Two 7-year-olds from the congregation were among the 20 children and six adults who were killed two days earlier, Dec. 14, in the shooting rampage at Sandy Hook Elementary School.
A 20-year-old had visited unspeakable horror on a school, a community and a group of families that had sent their happy youngsters off to another day at a school with a committed staff of teachers and administrators.
First responders were called from their “day jobs” to rush into a rescue situation that left them with lasting traumatic images. Law enforcement — local, state and federal — were frantically summoned to secure the school and begin the painstaking process of putting together the pieces to determine what happened and to try to provide answers to the inevitable question of “why.”
After the events of Friday morning, almost nothing seemed right with the world.
The Rev. Mel Kawakami, the senior pastor at Newtown, had to prepare a sermon on Saturday night, a sermon he did not anticipate writing.
On Sunday morning, Jay and Jeff stood outside the church in the gray, drizzly weather, welcoming guests and keeping a wary eye on the media barrage that continued to sweep down the narrow street in front of the church. They were keeping the parking lot open for worshippers rather than the TV microwave trucks. They hadn’t imagined that they, and their friend Don, would be out in the cold all morning long.
Karen, a member of the congregation, said she appreciated “the caring commitment of the congregation,” something she had experienced during her husband’s recent illness, but she hadn’t imagined that people would be clinging to each other for reasons beyond the friendliness and spirit of the season.
Bishop Martin McLee, the New York Conference’s new bishop, had made other commitments for Sunday, as had his cousin, who also changed his plans and drove the bishop the two hours north to Newtown, the usually quiet, Norman Rockwell-like country village with a creek that gurgles through the main part of town.
A sanctuary overflowing
The sanctuary of Newtown United Methodist Church is historic with narrow pews like the colonial era.
On Sunday, Dec. 16, the sanctuary’s first floor and balcony quickly filled to capacity for the 8 a.m. service and was well beyond overflowing, with people standing in the vestibule, during the 10 a.m. service. McLee; Kawakami; the Rev. Jane Sibley, the minister of visitation and spiritual growth; and the Rev. E. Sue Klein, a deacon, entered the front of the chancel in silence, mirroring the quietness of the congregation as it gathered.
Flowers — sent by people from around the world — framed the cross. The altar had 28 small candles burning, something Kawakami noted as he prayed. “We remember the 20 children, the six adults, the mother of the assailant, and yes, even the shooter himself. We commend them all to you, Lord.”
McLee said that messages of care and love “have been received from across the world, from Zimbabwe and nearer. Many are connected in our pain. We are not alone. In the midst of our pain we are not alone! And we give thanks that God is our Comforter…and we say, Amen.”
Together the congregation declared, “We call to you, O Holy One. In our trials, Lord, walk with us. When our hearts are almost breaking and our hearts are bent in sorrow, Jesus, our Savior, walk with us.”
“In the midst of terror we come to you for comfort,” Kawakami observed in the pastoral prayer. “We pray for students, parents, teachers, first responders. We pray for students who were able to escape and teachers who able to keep students safe. We pray for this journey, for openness to receive the compassion of others, and in that, begin to know and live with forgiveness.”
Waves of emotion
A grandfather constantly dabbed his eyes with his handkerchief. A young mother clung to her babe-in-arms as tears rolled down her cheek. Two teenaged girls nestled into their father’s arms. A mother leaned into her elementary school-aged son and put her hands on his shoulders as he sat in the pew directly in front of her. The acolytes had reddened eyes as they walked back from the altar after lighting the altar candles.
“I awoke with joy on Friday,” Kawakami said. “I enjoyed the sunshine, a good report after a doctor’s visit, a wonderful day. But then, at 10:30, I learned the unimaginable news. ‘It can’t be’ I thought. I was stunned. Everyone around me was speechless.
“Thinking about today I have to ask, ‘Where is the joy, God?’ But, just now, this is a time of tears. The Bible is filled with tears, wailing and loud lamentations. I think of Rachel who refused to be consoled for her children who were no more. There are tears for children who endure sickness, suffer through wars, experience the pains of hunger.
“And there are tears because we have love, empathy, compassion, caring. We have this blessing and thus we are touched with the pain of this tragedy. My tears are still flowing and my heart is still broken.”
Kawakami spoke of forgiveness.
“In 2006, a gunman killed 10 children in the one-room Amish schoolhouse in Nickel Mines, Pa. That community immediately went to his home and offered their forgiveness to his wife and his children…they offered what their faith told them to do,” he said.
“I am not sure that I am there yet, but with the love of those who came to our sanctuary, people who came to share love, maybe we can move in that direction…and maybe we can hear Jesus say, ‘Don’t be afraid,’” Kawakami said.
He invited the congregation to “turn to action, to shout out in outrage to evil that’s in contradiction to the life-giving love of God. In moments like this we can turn to one another, turn to God, turn to the Child who came to lead us, Emmanuel, who came to remind us, ‘Do not be afraid.’”
“Turn to God,” he concluded, “God who turned into our world to lead us to a way of love.”
Sacrament of Holy Communion
Entire families, from the oldest adult to the youngest child, were crying as they returned to their seats after receiving the gifts of bread and cup. When they settled back into their pews many, across family and group lines, held on to each other and sobbed.
In his benediction, McLee encouraged the congregation to “be drawn into the love of God.” He asked people to “reach out in love and hold the hand of someone near you.”
McLee started to sing Mark Miller’s “Draw the Circle Wider.”
“Draw the circle, draw the circle wider. No one stands alone; we’ll stand side by side. Draw the circle, draw the circle wider.
“My hope,” he said, is that “the people of the Newtown community, and beyond will be drawn into the tender, compassionate, comforting love of God in Christ Jesus, our Lord.”
The Rev. McClanahan, the director of communications for the Iowa Annual Conference, was in Connecticut at the time of the shooting and wrote this story on assignment for United Methodist News Service.