Newtown minister speaks of pain

Flag of Honor provides a makeshift memorial for the 20 children and six adults who died on Dec. 14, 2012 at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.
Courtesy of Newtown UMC; photo by Arthur McClanahan

Kawakami: “… church … where people can come with that pain”

The Rev. Mel Kawakami, senior pastor of Newtown United Methodist Church, has the difficult duty of shepherding his flock through the anguish of the second deadliest school shooting in U.S. history.

Two 7-year-olds from the congregation were among the 20 children and six adults who were killed Dec. 14 in the shooting rampage at Sandy Hook Elementary School.

Kawakami, who has served the Newtown church since 2008, found himself on Dec. 15 rewriting a sermon that he had expected to accompany the church Christmas pageant.

After the second worship service Dec. 16, Kawakami shared his thoughts with his friend of more than two decades, the Rev. Arthur McClanahan, now a member of the Iowa Annual (regional) Conference and the conference communicator.

McClanahan is a former clergy member in the New York Annual (regional) Conference, which includes the Newtown area. McClanahan had been in the northeast for the last week reporting on the devastation from Hurricane Sandy. He was in Connecticut the day of the shooting and went to Newtown on behalf of United Methodist News Service.

Below are excerpts from their conversation:

McClanahan: Two services, filled to capacity … people were holding on to each other.

Kawakami: Holding on to each other in pain … the church becomes a community to hold that pain and to allow them to feel that pain and then to point to the healing. Even just to name the fact that the pain is part of a process.

It’s too much to have an expectation about tomorrow that when all the news trucks drive away and the president leaves … that the pain is going to go away … that’s a critical part of being the church … we provide that place where people can come with that pain.

Today, in worship, we had people who, on Friday (at the Sandy Hook Elementary School) were holed up in closets, holding on to each other, thinking that that was their last moment. We had people splattered with blood. We had the sister of one of the victims who came today … she wanted to come to church.

The church is that place where, with God’s help, the healing presence of Christ, and the Holy Spirit at work … where healing can happen, or, at least, begin to happen.

McClanahan: You invited people to turn into the pain, rather than turning away from it.

Kawakami: Exactly. The temptation is to wall it off and then to pretend that it wasn’t there. The only way through pain is through it.

McClanahan: Emotions are raw. Many men in the congregation were feeling OK about showing their vulnerability … and their tears came out.

Kawakami: That means that what we hoped for in worship was happening … that we could feel that we were feeling. Words are difficult in these moments … It’s hard to name things like this … It seemed to me that to be able to open up is healthy. It’s hard to do that in the family … It’s hard to do that with your mate … but to come to a place where everybody’s doing it gave permission to feel some things … That’s hard to do “out there.”