Pain and suffering were felt by parents, families and caring people everywhere, when it became known Dec. 14 in Newtown, Conn., that a terrible massacre had taken place in, of all places, an elementary school, just before Christmas.
Put yourself in the place of a clergy person in the days following the event. How would you have addressed the calamity?
The Rev. Jonathan Baker, pastor of Epworth U.M. Church in Rehoboth Beach, said, “Normally, in our tradition, we focus on Advent at this time. It’s a time of respite and renewal. Our theme for the Sunday after the calamity was joy,” he said.
“We already had concerns about a message of joy, what with news of missiles being launched, U.S. financial matters, and problems everywhere of illness and battle,” Baker said.
“When it comes to joy, we have an awareness of God being with us despite what’s going on in the world,’ he added.
“In my sermon that Sunday, I referred to the 2006 killing of Amish children. Their parents felt deep grief but chose to forgive. We must deal constructively with our feelings, be open and honest with them, and realize that even in a troubled world, there is hope and joy.”
“We need to help parents, grandparents, and children feel strengthened by their faith and feel safe again,” he added.
“We must deal more seriously with mental issues,” Baker added. “There’s been a drying up of resources and we need to help those who struggle with it as well as professionals who deal with it every day.”
Baker, as lead pastor, wrote a letter to President Barrack Obama outlining his church’s concerns relative to the tragedy. Members of the congregation signed the letter and copies have been sent to Delaware legislators. That letter and his message to his congregation are at the end of this story.
The Rev. Jerome E. Tilghman Sr., pastor for the Lewes Charge made up of two churches, Israel UM and Faith UM Church, said, “Like the rest of the country, we were saddened to hear the tragic news. In our churches, we prayed for the families and community and drew on our Bibles for strength.”
He added, “Our society and world are more secular now and we need to draw close to God, knowing that God is love.”
The Rev. Max Wolf, rector of the All Saints’ Episcopal Parish, said before he preached at two services at All Saints' Church on the Sunday after the tragedy, that early that day he scanned the Sunday morning newspaper and found the names of the Newtown children and adults lost, as well as pictures of some of the children. “I studied it and then I put the clipping at the altar in our side chapel. I knew that I couldn’t look at those faces and preach,” he said.
Before he became an Episcopal priest, Wolf said he was cautioned by someone not to do it. “Everyone’s dying on you,” the friend said. “Well, in a year’s time now, I do 20 to 25 services a year for those who die,” said Wolf. “I believe in everlasting life and salvation. I can help to turn someone over into God’s hands. It’s a privilege.”
“It was a toxic issue,” said the Rev. Christopher Moore, Episcopal priest associate with All Saints' Parish. He led worshippers at St. George’s Chapel that Sunday after the grim Friday. “We all felt sadness and anger," he said. “I based my sermon on the Bible passages that day, on John the Baptist, the wheat and the chaff, how values are important in life and of no importance in the case of the chaff.”
“We prayed for the children, their parents and families and all who were affected by the event," he said. “We were all saturated by it.”
Also shocked at the Dec. 14 massacre was Fr. Jim Hreha, founding pastor of St. Jude’s Roman Catholic Church in Lewes. “We all wondered what this world was coming to,” he said.
“For our school of religion, we already have people who are hall monitors,” he said. “And, we have a building principal for each of our two sessions every Sunday.”
What does Hreha see coming from what happened in Newtown? “We need to contact the authorities when we see something suspicious and not depend on someone else doing it,” he said.
The Rev. Harry Hughes, pastor of Lewes Presbyterian Church, did his regular three services the Sunday after the events of Dec. 14. “We prayed for the victims of the assault,” he said. “And, we lifted up the children and teachers lost.”
“It’s been suggested that we do a sermon and special teaching session on evil in the new year,” Hughes said. “We need to remember the victims of Newtown on an ongoing basis.”
Hughes is a parent, the father of five children. His church has an after-school program for at-risk children. “We also work with the Community Resource Center to help families and individuals get a better grip on life,” he said. As president of the Lewes-Rehoboth Association of Churches and its 18 members, he is active in the community.
The following is a copy of the letter that Baker and his congregation sent to President Obama and Delaware legislators and a message he sent to his congregation:
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW
Washington, DC 20500
Dear Mr. President,
I write to you joining you and the rest of the country in grieving for yet another gun shooting, this time at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. Tragically, 27 people were shot and killed, with 20 of those being children. I know we as a nation mourn this tragic loss of life and we pray for comfort and healing for the families devastated by this senseless violence.
I deeply appreciate the statement you made immediately following this tragedy when you said: "As a country, we have been through this too many times. Whether it's an elementary school in Newtown, or a shopping mall in Oregon, or a temple in Wisconsin, or a movie theater in Aurora, or a street corner in Chicago - these neighborhoods are our neighborhoods and these children are our children. And we're going to have to come together and take meaningful action to prevent more tragedies like this, regardless of the politics.
As you begin your second term as president, I ask that that preventing senseless gun violence will be a high priority for you and for Congress. Your leadership is crucial in addressing this issue. As a follower of Jesus, the Prince of Peace, along with persons from other faith communities who worship a God of Peace, I want to live in a society that gives less easy access to weapons, especially those such as assault weapons that can cause widespread death and destruction. What's more, those who might be inclined to violent actions should not have access to guns at all.
Therefore, I ask you to focus on two things:
1. Make gun ownership a more responsible process with universal background checks no matter where the gun is purchased.
2. Reinstate a vigorous ban on assault weapons.
We must make services that determine and treat mental illness more accessible to all who need them. Mental illness must no longer be hidden, but should be something openly discussed so that those who suffer receive the help they need.