Newtown United Methodist Church has a passionate history of reaching out in mission to the world, but now it finds that the world’s attention and caring is riveted on its own tight-knit community in Connecticut.
On Friday, 20-year-old Adam Lanza killed 20 children and six teachers and administrators at Sandy Hook Elementary School, just down the road from the Newtown church. Before the shooting rampage at the school, Lanza killed his mother in her home; then he committed suicide at the school.
Rev. Sue Klein, a deacon who has served the Newtown church as minister of music for 30 years, said that the last few days have been unreal.
“It’s amazing to see how the whole world has come to us,” she said in a phone interview following last night’s prayer service at the Newtown High School. President Barack Obama and Connecticut Gov. Danell Malloy attended the interfaith service that was led by the community’s clergy including Newtown’s Senior Pastor Mel Kawakami and Associate Pastor Jane Sibley.
“We have an amazing church family,” Klein, 81, said of the 600-member congregation. “We respond to everything.”
The church has sent countless numbers of volunteers to Haiti. When tropical storm Irene battered the Catskills in 2011, the church sent teams and their disaster recovery trailer full of equipment. And now in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy, the church is repeating those efforts to help in the recovery.
But now the congregation is dealing with its very own loss. Two of the 20 children killed in the attack, Chase Kowalski, 7, and Jesse Lewis, 6, attended the church with their families. Several other members of the congregation teach or work at the school and survived the rampage. “They are just devastated,” Klein said.
The son of Rev. Sibley is an emergency medical technician in the community and was one of the first responders on the scene at the school.
As Rev. Kawakami prayed during last night’s televised community service, “We know the lost – they are not just names on a list. We know the lost because they are ours.”
The church met for its two regular worship services on Sunday morning and the sanctuary was overflowing. The media cameras were not allowed into the services so that the congregation could mourn and worship privately. Bishop Martin D. McLee and District Superintendent Ken Kieffer were in attendance.
Klein said that sharing the sacrament of Holy Communion offered a very meaningful way for the congregation to come together. “We are ministering to our community and probably will be for a very long time,” she added. “We are dealing with the pain within and without of the congregation.”
As Klein prepared the chancel choir for Sunday morning worship, she told them, “No breaking down over there.” And they did not as they offered the Advent anthem, “Will You Travel to Bethlehem?” Violinist Lindsay Jones, 22, who brought musical instruments on one of those mission trips to Haiti, volunteered to play for worship, bringing yet another layer of comfort to this grieving community.
Church bells around the conference and as far away as Santee UMC in San Diego County, echoed the Newtown UMC bell on Sunday morning as it rang out 28 times in memory of those who were killed.
“We will never be the same,” Klein said, “But we have felt the enormous presence of God through it all.”