Cover Story
VIOLATED: Residents of Newtown react to news of the shooting.
Don Emmert/AFP/Getty Images
VIOLATED: Residents of Newtown react to news of the shooting.

A town clothed in misery

Shooting | As they mourn, local churches seek to bring hope to a spiritually desolate city after the horrific Sandy Hook shooting

Issue: "Another dark day in America," Jan. 12, 2013

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. 

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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.” 

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