NEWTOWN, Conn.—Newtown, Conn., is a small town that looks like the setting for one of New Englander Barbara Cooney’s children’s picture books. Lumpy pastures fill the landscape between small windy roads, and colonial homes are criss-crossed with dry-stacked stone walls. It’s a town full of families. The last murder Newtown Police Lt. George Sinko can recall was about a decade ago.
The town’s peace was broken on Friday, Dec. 14, when 20-year-old Adam Lanza, who grew up in Newtown, murdered his mother in their home. Lanza then proceeded to break into nearby Sandy Hook Elementary School, where he gunned down six teachers and administrators as well as 20 first-graders. When the police arrived a few minutes after the shooting began, Lanza took his own life.
“This is what marks the town now,” said Brian Harrington, who lives in Newtown with his wife and four children. He looked at his two handsome sons, 8 and 9 years old, across the table at a Newtown Starbucks. Everyone in the coffee shop was trying to talk about other topics, but the conversations would inevitably turn to the shooting. “The whole community feels violated. We feel an unleashing of supernatural evil,” Harrington said. The Harringtons used their usual Friday family worship time to talk to their children about what happened, to tell them that the purpose of Jesus coming to earth was “to crush evil.” The Harringtons have two friends who lost children.
In a town of 27,000, everything is close about this inexplicable tragedy. Everyone knows someone. The pianist at Newtown Bible Church went to high school with the shooter, Adam Lanza. Parents all know parents who lost children. Children name friends who were murdered. Before the names of victims came out, a neighbor’s driveway filled with cars and state troopers was its own news report.
“If you drive through Newtown, you can feel it. It’s oppressive,” said Mike Mancini, a college pastor at Walnut Hill Community Church, whose main campus is about five miles from the elementary school. “I feel at every moment, there’s this thin veil, and if I just exhale too deeply, I will start to cry.” He has struggled to sleep since the shooting.
One of the girls killed was at the Mancinis’ house for dinner only a couple of months earlier. Mike and Kara Mancini have three sons, one of kindergarten age. Last year they were debating moving to Sandy Hook or Bethel, a town a few miles west. In the end they decided to move to Bethel. If they had moved to Sandy Hook, their son would have been a student at Sandy Hook Elementary.
“This evil is not new, it’s just never been so close to us before,” said Mancini.
Four families at Walnut Hill Community Church lost children. Walnut Hill, with about 3,500 members, is the largest evangelical church in an area where an estimated 4 percent of the population is evangelical.
New England has the reputation of being spiritually dead, and Newtown too. The town is largely culturally Catholic or of no faith. The family of one of the children killed, Noah Pozner, 6, attended a conservative Jewish synagogue in Newtown, but the Jewish population in the county is about 4 percent. An Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Newtown closed its doors recently. “A difficult town to plant churches,” as one Connecticut pastor described it. Walnut Hill is an oddity of evangelical growth. Christians I interviewed were shocked just to see the “God Bless Newtown” and “Pray for Newtown” signs that now dot many stores and street corners. In the midst of the deaths of these young ones, local pastors are seeing the seeds of new spiritual life.
Clive Calver, former head of the Evangelical Alliance in the United Kingdom and more recently the head of World Relief, is the senior pastor at Walnut Hill. His church has approached Newtown as a mission field well before the shooting.
“I do think the rest of America has forgotten that New England exists, and its spiritual condition,” said Calver. When he took over pastoring the church, it had about 1,000 members. Though the church has more than tripled since, he estimates 800 of those original members have left, many moving to the South or retiring elsewhere. “We’re not getting many reinforcements … I’d like some help. I do want churches who will stand with us.”
When I talked to Calver, he was preparing for a funeral for one of the shooting victims, a boy, the next day. And he had a memorial service a few days after that. “Pray for the community,” Calver said. “It doesn’t have the Christian roots, so it doesn’t have anything to hang onto.”
When Calver left World Relief to pastor Walnut Hill eight years ago, he realized that the spiritual geography was in many ways like Britain. Faith in this heavily academic culture is viewed with skepticism. Growing the church has been and will be a decades-long process, he knows, with a whole different language and approach than anywhere else in the country. Calver is not discouraged, though. “God’s doing something, slowly, steadily,” he said. In its fellowship hall, Walnut Hill has a yellow flower for every person who has come to faith in the last year. Right now, the church has 180 yellow flowers.
The church has been sending young pastors through seminary, on the condition that they serve in New England. Mancini, at 31 one of those young pastors, is a native of Connecticut with a shaved head, a bushy beard, and an easy manner. He grew up an atheist and became a Christian in college. He spends most of his time working with college students at the church and then for InterVarsity at the local university, Western Connecticut State. He sees his college students’ new, earnest faith and calls New England “God’s playground.” Where campus ministries have struggled to gain acceptance at other northeastern universities, Western Connecticut has been open to InterVarsity.
“I think the culture in New England that is skeptical and a little bit academic and a little bit closed off, I see God moving and opening up doors,” said Mancini.
“There’s no other good that can come out of this,” said Pastor Joey Newton, who leads Newtown Bible Church, one of the only other evangelical churches in town. “Maybe the community comes together for a moment. But that’s temporary. … The relatives go home, and it gets silent and there you are with your loss.”
Newton was at the local firehouse with other pastors, including Calver, shortly after the shooting, where parents gathered to hear updates about their missing children. As the hours passed, Calver recalled that one parent called out, “Are there any [more] survivors?” Connecticut governor Dannel Malloy, on hand to be with the families, finally said no. Parents wailed and screamed. Newton said some of the parents couldn’t move for some time after hearing the news.
Pastors said the local government was very open to letting clergy remain at the firehouse during that time, and allowing the pastors to come to the designated grief counseling centers in days since. Five hundred people attended a prayer service at Walnut Hill on the night of the shooting.
The comfort from the mainline churches in town was thin. Priest Kathleen Adams-Shepherd at Newtown’s Trinity Episcopal Church told her congregation, according to USA Today, “Try to see just a pinpoint of light, if you can. … Jesus will come no matter what. And so will Santa. Amen.” At St. Rose of Lima Catholic Church, the central church in town where 10 families lost children, the parish pastor Robert Weiss said, “If we work together, good things can happen.”
Down the road, Newtown Bible Church pastor Parker Reardon preached a different message the Sunday after the shooting. “We are not adequate in ourselves, our adequacy is in God,” he said. “People want to appeal to the inherent goodness of man. That’s not what the Bible teaches. We can’t make sense of it that way. ... Man’s condition is hopeless and helpless to save himself.” Reardon hadn’t slept since the shooting. He had a puddle of a tear on his cheek that he didn’t seem to notice.
That morning in the Sunday school class for fourth- through sixth-graders at Newtown Bible Church, the curriculum called for studying Matthew 2. It was planned well before the shooting happened. The teacher, Matt Bilotta, went carefully through the first part of the passage, about the three wise men seeking the newly born Messiah. Then he came to the part of the chapter where Herod is so enraged about the reports of a newborn “king” that he orders the slaughter of every child under the age of 2. “A voice was heard in Ramah, weeping and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be comforted, because they are no more,” reads part of the passage. The teacher explained it to the class, “Herod did an awful, awful thing.” The kids didn’t miss the connection for a second. “That’s like what happened here,” said one boy.
The kids will remember what happened, and the parents already have it seared across their memories—it’s Newtown’s new identity. The town Christmas tree on Main Street was turned into a memorial. An entire elementary school remains sealed as a crime scene until further notice. But the pastors don’t want the town’s identity to be one of only sorrow and despair.
“I believe that God uses all things for good,” said Mancini. He continued: “I don’t know how He’s going to use this for good. But what I see in the students who I work with who have grown up in this area, who for them, the reality of the brokenness of this world has always been a concept to be agreed with, and like, a philosophical point to be made in communicating the gospel. I think for the first time ever they are actually feeling and experiencing the injustice and brokenness of the world in a way that people who live in the richest county in the richest nation that’s ever been have probably never experienced before. I don’t want to for one second say this is good. This is awful.”
Mancini grew emotional as he talked, the veil covering his grief slipping away. “I have to preach tonight. I have to go speak to a community of young adults and college students tonight and I still don’t know what I’m going to say. God is good and the gospel is true, and this is Advent. If there’s ever a time that we need to be longing—we talk about longing for Jesus to come. But so much of the time we’re just like, ‘Well, I don’t know, things are pretty good.’ … Maybe in this, when we’re confronted with this darkness, man, I don’t know, my hope is that people will see that the gospel is true. And that there is hope. … There is no other faith, other view of God, other than the God of the Bible who knows this pain firsthand. And He conquered it and He’s coming back to make all things new. So there’s hope. That’s it.”
April 20: 13 killed, 24 injured; Columbine, Colo. In a four-hour siege at Columbine High School, students Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold shot students and a teacher before taking their own lives—in what was then the deadliest school shooting in U.S. history.
July 29: 9 killed, 12 injured; Atlanta, Ga. At All-Tech Investment Mark Orrin Barton, 44, killed and injured fellow investors and office workers. Barton killed himself following a six-hour manhunt.
Sept. 15: 7 killed, 7 injured; Fort Worth, Texas. Worshippers at Wedgwood Baptist Church kept singing as Larry Gene Ashbrook opened fire in the crowded chapel then took his own life.
Dec. 26: 7 killed; Wakefield, Mass. Seven employees died at Edgewater Technology Inc., after colleague Michael McDermott, 42, shot them.
March 5: 2 killed, 13 injured; Santee, Calif. Charles Andrew Williams, 15, surrendered to police after opening fire in the bathroom and courtyard of Santana High School.
July 8: 5 killed, 9 injured; Meridian, Miss. At a Lockheed Martin defense plant, employee Doug Williams, 48, killed five and wounded nine before ending his own life.
March 21: 9 killed, 7 injured; Red Lake Indian Reservation, Minn. After fatally shooting his grandparents in their home, 16-year-old Red Lake High School student Jeffrey Weise arrived at school and killed classmates, a teacher, and a security guard before taking his own life.
Oct. 2: 5 killed, 5 injured; Nickel Mines, Pa. Ten Amish girls, ages 6 to 13, were taken captive in their one-room schoolhouse and then shot by Charles Carl Roberts IV, who killed himself during a police assault.
Feb. 12: 5 killed, 4 injured; Salt Lake City. Shoppers at a city mall fled for cover as Sulejman Talovic, an 18-year-old Bosnian refugee, began firing at random with a 12-gauge shotgun. Police killed Talovic in a subsequent shootout.
April 16: 32 killed, 17 injured; Blacksburg, Va. Senior Seung-hui Cho, 23, killed himself after shooting nearly 50 students and teachers at Virginia Tech in the deadliest shooting rampage in U.S. history.
Dec. 5: 8 killed, 4 injured; Omaha, Neb. At Von Maur department store Robert Hawkins, 19, fired at customers and employees with an AK-47. He took his own life after killing eight others.
Feb. 14: 5 killed, 16 injured; Dekalb, Ill. A Northern Illinois University geology class erupted when former student Steven Kazmierczak sprayed bullets into the classroom of more than 100 students before shooting himself.
April 3: 13 killed, 4 injured; Binghamton, N.Y. After blocking the back entrance with his car to prevent people from escaping, Jiverly Voong, 41, murdered 13 and killed himself at an immigration services center.
Nov. 5: 13 killed, 32 injured; Ft. Hood, Texas. Army psychiatrist Nidal Malik Hasan, 39, allegedly shouted “Allahu Akbar” (Allah is great) before shooting 45 people—13 fatally.
Feb. 12: 3 killed, 3 injured; Huntsville, Ala. University of Alabama in Huntsville faculty dove under a conference table as biology professor Amy Bishop, denied tenure, began shooting. Bishop, 47, was sentenced to life in prison without parole.
Aug. 3: 8 killed, 2 injured; Manchester, Conn. Accused of stealing beer, truck driver Omar Thornton, 34, fatally shot eight people at Hartford Distributors before taking his own life.
Jan. 8: 6 killed, 11 injured; Tucson, Ariz. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords was among the injured in 22-year-old Jared Lee Loughner's shooting spree at a constituent meeting in a supermarket parking lot.
Oct. 22: 8 killed, 1 injured; Seal Beach, Calif. Scott Dekraai, 41, allegedly killed his ex-wife and seven others in an attack lasting two minutes at the Seal Beach Hair Salon. He has pleaded not guilty.
April 2: 7 killed, 3 injured; Oakland, Calif. At Oikos University former student One Goh, 43, allegedly used a semi-automatic handgun to kill seven and wound three. A court-ordered psychologist has ruled Goh, who said he's “deeply sorry” for the shooting, mentally incompetent to stand trial.
July 20: 12 killed, 58 injured; Aurora, Colo. A midnight premiere of The Dark Knight Rises became a nightmare as 24-year-old James Holmes entered through an exit door and began firing. He is being held pending trial.
Aug. 5: 6 killed, 3 injured; Oak Creek, Wis. In the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin, Army veteran Wade Michael Page, 40, killed six with a 9mm handgun before being wounded—then killing himself—during a police shootout.
Sept. 28: 6 killed, 2 injured; Minneapolis. The owner of a sign-making company and five others died after disgruntled former employee Andrew Engeldinger, 36, opened fire in a company office, then killed himself.
Oct. 21: 3 killed, 4 injured; Brookfield, Wis. Zina Haughton and two other women at the salon where she worked died after her estranged husband, former Marine Radcliffe Haughton, 45, shot seven people and then himself.
Dec. 11: 2 killed, 1 injured; Clackamas County, Ore. Christmas shoppers filled a shopping mall outside Portland when Jacob Tyler Roberts, 22, allegedly randomly killed two people and injured a third before turning the gun on himself.
Dec. 14: 27 killed, 1 injured; Newtown, Conn. Twenty first-graders at Sandy Hook Elementary died after Adam Lanza, 20, apparently killed his mother at home before embarking on a shooting rampage at the school and killing himself. Six adults at Sandy Hook also died, including the principal.