On the eve of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, the Rev. Dr. James Forbes told grieving residents of Newtown, Conn., that Rev. King’s words of healing and nonviolence “are needed now more than ever.” Forbes, senior minister emeritus of the Riverside Church in New York City, spoke during “A Gathering for Worship: For the Healing of Newtown,” a multi-faith service sponsored by the Congregational and United Methodist churches in Newtown on January 20.
Nearly 300 people gathered in the sanctuary to laugh, cry, sing, and pray together a little more than a month after the shooting deaths of 26 students and teachers at the Sandy Hook Elementary School. Adam Lanza also killed his mother before taking his own life at the school.
Congregational Pastor Matt Crebbin welcomed the group to his church saying that the journey for healing has become a way of life in the community. But “our calling is too great to give into violence. As Martin Luther King said, ‘I have seen too much hate to hate.’
“The journey ahead will be long and arduous, but we do not journey alone; we have a great sustainer to travel with us,” Crebbin said. “Destiny lies in our ability to be as one – community, nation, world. God is with us. Those gathered here remind us that we are not alone.”
Four lay members from the Newtown United Methodist and Congregational churches offered gathering words that spoke to the purpose of the service – to imagine, find strength and courage, heal divisions, mend hearts, and transform the world. Two members of the Islamic community, one of them a young boy, then provided a sung and spoken prayer.
Forbes, in light of the King holiday, drew a comparison between the Sandy Hook tragedy and the civil rights movement. While the movement begun in the 1960s may not have eradicated all prejudice, there has been real progress, he said. Dr. King preached a message of non-violence, and was all too familiar with the loss of children to violence after four girls were killed in the 1962 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala. Forbes called on those gathered to pursue change in the wake of the shootings.
Forbes warned that the nation should not be worried about its second amendment rights being taken away, but should be more concerned about keeping the second commandant.
“Thou shall not make false idols, and sometimes instruments of war become idols,” Forbes said to applause from the gathering.
“God works something out of everything,” Forbes said. “What good for this community and the nation can come of this . . . that will honor our little ones.” He noted that the country has become engaged in a debate about gun violence, and while opinions are deeply divided, at least the dialogue is happening.
“We have seen that violence can strike anywhere. It leaves our hearts naked, vulnerable, exposed,” he said. “What if something that happened in Newtown led to a new America?” Forbes repeatedly asked.
One of several moving moments in the service came as a chorus of young Newtown students performed the song, “My Beautiful Town,” which was written by music teacher Jim Allyn just days after the tragedy. The song, which the students have recorded, offers a message of hope – as part of the lyrics convey:
There are signs along the way
There is music to be played
And the air we breathe in
This is where we begin
There’s no map but we are bound
On holy ground
My beautiful town
My beautiful town.
Following Forbes’ message, the congregation was invited to write prayers of hope for the community that were then gathered and lifted up by Rev. Mel Kawakami, senior pastor of Newtown United Methodist Church. As the service drew to a close, the strains of “We Shall Overcome,” filled the sanctuary as the crowd rose and joined hands as they sang.
Earlier in the day, Dr. Forbes met with clergy and religious leaders from the Newtown area who are grappling with the grieving process, and their own self-care. Forbes is founder of the Healing of the Nations Foundation, which works to broaden awareness of the connections between physical, emotional, mental and spiritual health. Of the 50 people who gathered in the sanctuary for the afternoon gathering, about a dozen were pastors and caregivers from area United Methodist congregations.
As clergy shared their concerns and challenges as pastoral leaders, Forbes drew on his experience of ministry in New York City in the days following the 9-11 attacks. Forbes, who was wearing a ribbon in the Sandy Hook school colors, explained how he needed to manage his anger after the World Trade Center attacks. “My anger had to be selective,” he said. “We need to ask ourselves ‘what is the use of our anger?’ ”
Forbes said that as pastors when we speak the truth in love, that often what is spoken must be tough love. “We need to offer tough love, sprinkled with laughter,” he encouraged. “We need to make the best possible presentation of faith so that people remain, even after the crisis is over.”
Forbes urged the clergy to allow other caregivers and counselors to help them. He suggested a “designated driver” system for clergy to provide a sharing, caring community watching out for one another.
“Preachers, renew yourselves with Psalm 139,” he recommended. “God will see you through; we’re not out here by ourselves.”
An afternoon drive through Newtown and Sandy Hook still finds signs of encouragement for the community, from a sign reading “Embrace Hope” at a local garden nursery to a huge banner of encouragement from Tucson, Ariz., hanging from a railroad trestle.
A large tent has been erected as a temporary memorial site on Route 6 just west of I-84. A large America flag flies from a crane outside, and visitors are greeted with a hug from one of the local volunteer hosts. The tent has been a labor of love and an opportunity for healing for those who are maintaining it. Inside are a proliferation of stuffed animals, candles and posters offering condolences and encouragement from around the country. Along the roofline, garlands of hearts offer handwritten messages of hope and encouragement.
While orange cones still block off the road to Sandy Hook Elementary, at the fire station at the end of the street, 26 large red stars have been scattered across the rooftop in honor of the 20 first graders and six teachers and administrators who were killed in the school on December 14.