"When the world comes undone:" YDS alumni and students reflect on ministering to the grieving Newtown community
Newtown, Connecticut is about a 45 minute drive from the Yale Divinity School campus, heading west out of New Haven, then turning north through the Housatonic River Valley. It’s a familiar drive to many generations of YDS students and alums who have served churches along that Valley and in the village of Newtown itself. YDS grads and students were at work on December 14, when a gunman shot his way into the Sandy Hook Elementary School, killing 20 young children and six teachers and administrators, as well as his mother in her home, and finally himself.
How did the part of the YDS community that was close to this violence respond on that day and in the weeks that have followed?
Adele Crawford ’08 M.Div. who served for a year at YDS as the Interim Dean of Marquand Chapel, had been installed as the pastor at Valley Presbyterian Church in Brookfield, Connecticut just two weeks before the shooting. Valley Presbyterian is a ten-minute car ride from the Sandy Hook school.
Adele heard first from church leaders who lived very close to the school. She was quickly in touch with the families of all of the children who are a part of her congregation, and then called all of the public school teachers on their cell phones. All of the schools in the district were in lock-down, so few phones were answered. But after being satisfied that no teachers or kids from her church were at the Sandy Hook school, she began the work of ministry to the rest of the church community.
She opened the church, and welcomed those who came to pray into the evening. Many visits were made, and many more phone calls, checking in on people, helping them to recognize that they were not alone even in this time of great sadness. A long series of prayer vigils at her church and at many others places in town began that night; with those gatherings came a period of intense pastoral care for people who were asking why something like this happens, and how God allows such pain.
Remembering William Sloan Coffin’s writing about his own grief at the time of his son’s death, Adele assured her congregation that “God was the first one to cry” as the bullets rang out. While none in her congregation were in the school that morning, nearly everyone “lost colleagues and friends and little people friends, and children of co-workers, and spouses of co-workers, and people down the street. We aren’t very far removed.”
Adele found her denominational support to be a vital importance during the hours that followed. The Presbyterian Disaster Assistance offices were immediately in touch, and four theologically trained people with special preparation in “human caused disasters,” were on the ground in Connecticut by the next afternoon. Denominational trauma experts from a range of traditions have continued to provide care for their own congregations, and then to reach beyond denominations, to caregivers and first responders, and others who have need of their services.
Adele understood that the work of ministering in a community dealing with grief would continue for many months. All were glad when the media were finally gone. “What so many of us want, after some tragic event in our lives, is a sense of normalcy.” But little would be normal for the days that would follow. On Christmas Eve, the small sanctuary at Valley Presbyterian was packed, necessitating the opening of partition walls for visitors who needed a place to worship.
And what of the training that Adele had received to minister in such a time as this? “I felt confident, or at least really calm, that God was with me in this, that I wasn’t making stuff up on my own. I felt really grounded in the certainty that God had not designed this. My theology helped me a lot in this.”
Previous experiences of trauma in ministry, as well as her CPE chaplaincy training, taught her “to sit still, as opposed to do do do. And I had people, professors to call, who reminded me to let the members of my congregation lead, to make the space to tell me what they needed.”
26 funerals were happening in the weeks that followed the shootings, as well as very large community services and gatherings. One took place on the high school football field in Brookfield. As that painful time comes to an end, Adele says that she has put together a small congregational caring team, who will work with her “to be our ears to the community, identifying particular needs. They will help me to determine what to put in place and what to resources going forward… grief support, teacher support, programs for parents.”
In personal terms, Adele has been deeply moved by phone calls and emails from pastors around the country who say “I’m in Blacksburg, I’m at Virginia Tech, I’m in Aurora. Any time of the day or night… call me. I’m here. I’ve been through this.”
Allysa De Wolf ’13 M.Div. is in her second year of internship at the Newtown Congregational Church. Soon after hearing about the shooting, she drove to the church. “I feel the Holy Spirit was yanking at my heart to go. This was not just the place where I worked but had become my church home and family. I needed to be there for my family.”
She helped answer phones as together the church staff sought to organize the stream of information. “The phone literally did not stop ringing for days after. My first job was to call all the families who had children at the school. There is no sort of training that makes you ready to confront the possibility that one of your congregants has lost a child in a tragic mass shooting. There never was time to really think about what I was doing. There was only time to act. Thankfully, none of our congregants were killed but many lost loved ones.”
Allysa then called the families and members of her youth group, prayed with students and parents over the phone, and offered the church’s services. An accomplished singer and song leader, Allysa found that “even with all my musical training, nothing prepared me for flipping through the hymnal searching for songs suitable for this occasion.”
The days that followed were filled with pastoral care, prayer services, phone calls, and organizing. A total of four services were created for the days following the tragedy.
“We had to re-do the entire Sunday service at 10 p.m. on Saturday, while ministering in hundreds of other ways.”
YDS student Dan Jacob ’13 M.Div. had a similarly profound experience. Dan is also in an internship, just over the river from Newtown at St. James Lutheran Church, in Southbury, Connecticut. Like the others, his first hours after the shooting were spent alternating between overwhelming tears and finding out if our children were safe. “Blessedly, our one child at Sandy Hook Elementary School was safely led out by her mother.”
At worship on Sunday morning at St. James, “tear-choked-prayers and hymns of healing rang with the pastor’s pointed words.” When the child who attended Sandy Hook Elementary School stood with the rest of the children’s choir on that morning, ready to “bravely sing her heart out,” the congregation heard an “advent song of hope. No one could tell kin from stranger, as our church was made one in their sacred words. Our sister, our daughter, had run through bloodied halls, the same halls that promised to keep her safe. That Sunday if much remained uncertain, this we knew to be true, church is a family and sanctuary means safety.”
Allysa reflects on the powerful experience in this way: “Never before have I understood the true nature of being ‘called’ to ministry. Those first few days were fueled and inspired by the Holy Spirit. Never before had knowing so many people were praying for us and for me meant so much. I was able to reach out to faculty at YDS for advisement from the beginning. It was comforting to know that there were people I could turn to for advice and prayer.”
“I will be preaching frequently in the next few months,” Allysa concludes, “and am looking ahead to what message God has for us as we move on. I know that more then ever, YDS will be an important tool and support in moving forward. The real work has begun in the rebuilding and I know I can count on my studies, professors and community at YDS to inspire me and support me as we journey together.”
Jan Holton, associate professor of pastoral care and counseling at YDS, offers some pastoral theological sentiments drawn from her research and experience with death and grief, counsel that she would offer to her students or the other pastors, but not to grieving families.
"When the world comes undone as it has for those in Newtown, grieve and cry and mourn the loss of souls precious to God and to us. Resist easy theological answers that jump to name evil especially in places like autism and mental illness. Be brave and courageous in the face of uncertainty and unanswered questions. Hold fast to our God who moves in every act of love and kindness that surrounds us. And strive for the day we are as rightly and equally grieved and outraged by the senseless killing of any of the world’s children as we are now."