One year has passed. The camera crews and television trucks have left. Sandy Hook Elementary School, where 20 first graders and six adults were shot and killed, has been demolished. The details of the shooting are established now, but the motive of 20-year-old shooter Adam Lanza remains a mystery, according to the final report released in November.
The official anniversary of the Newtown, Conn., massacre was December 14. The town, in an effort to keep media away, held no memorial service that day. St. Rose of Lima, the Catholic church in the middle of town, rang its bells 26 times to mark the 26 victims.
“The first year is a year you just have to walk through. The first birthdays, the holidays,” said Adam DePasquale, a pastor at Walnut Hill Community Church, a 3,500-member church a few miles from the elementary school. DePasquale was one of the pastors at the firehouse with parents after the shooting. “I think year two is going to be a tremendous year, and [it will] establish the new normal.”
Sprigs of hope are sprouting out of the horror that will forever mark the small New England town. Walnut Hill has seen incredible growth in the last year. By the church’s numbers, 7,000 people visited who had never been to the church before. Its small group ministry has grown; the church now has five groups that meet regularly in Newtown itself.
“More people have turned their eyes to Jesus this year than any year in our church’s history,” DePasquale said. “The local church has really grown stronger through this.”
The church has offered licensed counseling through the Sandy Hook Restoration Fund, a ministry fund set up after the tragedy. Recently the pastors overseeing that program have seen a surge in the demand for grief counseling.
“For a year, it’s been getting through the year,” said John Dischinger, the pastor of care at Walnut Hill, who has worked with grieving families. “But the impact of that day is still there.”
The church is ministering to first responders who are struggling and to mothers of slain children through its moms group. Five families in the Walnut Hill church community lost children in the shooting. In response to the tragedy the church is strengthening its support for single parents and adding parenting and marriage classes.
“The future of our community depends on the health of families, and we feel called to be a voice and resource in this area,” DePasquale said.
Churches in the area from different denominations have held joint worship services together this year for the first time, and pastors from local churches meet regularly. The pastors have urged anyone struggling to seek out community and help, not to suffer alone.
Last Thursday, Walnut Hill held a prayer service ahead of the anniversary.
“Come, Lord Jesus, come,” the pastors prayed.