Cover Story

A town clothed in misery

"A town clothed in misery" Continued...

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

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. 

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