NEWTOWN, Conn.—This small Connecticut town has Christmas lights up, but the weight of grief is palpable. Painted plywood signs, by the interstate and on Main Street and on hillsides, plead, “Pray for Newtown.” In Newtown churches on Sunday morning, parents would start talking around the coffee table, then pause, unexpectedly overwhelmed. Men cried. Women cried. The people of the town seemed shell-shocked.
On Sunday night, for the fourth time in his presidency, President Barack Obama came to speak words of comfort after a mass shooting. But this time, somehow, was the most wrenching. Families of the 20 children and six teachers and administrators killed in the Friday shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School as well as first responders were invited to hear the speech at Newtown High School, just down the road from the elementary school. Sobs and wails broke out in the auditorium at different moments in the president’s speech, one of his most heartfelt.
President Obama opened with a passage from 2 Corinthians 4: “Do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal. For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands.”
Emotions were raw. On Sunday morning, a threat had been phoned in to St. Rose of Lima Catholic Church, a church near the center of town that had been a gathering place for mourners in the largely Catholic community. Police evacuated the church, sent in a SWAT team, and surrounded it with yellow tape.
Meanwhile, church leaders around the town offered stunned words to their congregations. At Newtown Bible Church that morning, a soloist tried to sing, “Where Joy and Sorrow Meet,” but lost all composure. The flutist jumped in to sing: “There is victory in defeat, at the cross of restoration, where joy and sorrow meet.” None of the families at the church lost children, but many had friends who did. The pianist went to high school with the shooter, Adam Lanza.
That evening, in 35-degree rain, the president arrived. He met with families of the murdered, and then spoke at the high school.
“I am very mindful that mere words cannot match the depths of your sorrow, nor can they heal your wounded hearts,” he told the families. “I can only hope it helps for you to know that you’re not alone in your grief—that our world too has been torn apart, that all across this land of ours, we have wept with you, we’ve pulled our children tight.”
Obama called for action in the wake of the tragedy, though he did not mention anything specific, like gun regulations.
“We can’t tolerate this anymore,” he said. “These tragedies must end. And to end them, we must change. We will be told that the causes of such violence are complex, and that is true. No single law—no set of laws can eliminate evil from the world, or prevent every senseless act of violence in our society. … But that can’t be an excuse for inaction. Surely, we can do better than this.”
The president concluded by reading aloud the first names of the first-graders who were killed, a moment where the parents in the room broke down.
In the wake of the tragedy many faith leaders focused on the good people of Newtown loving each other and overcoming the evil of the shooting. But that morning in the nearby Newtown Bible Church, Pastor Parker Reardon preached about the evil that lives in every heart.
“People want to appeal to the inherent goodness of man,” preached Reardon. “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.”
“We live in an evil world, capital E,” said Reardon. “It will not stop until the Prince of Peace comes.”
The church closed by singing, “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.”