Post-Tragedy: ‘How Do I Celebrate Christmas?’

By Stan Friedman

NEWTOWN, CT (December 21, 2012) – As the community continues to bury the children and adults massacred at Sandy Hook Elementary School here one week ago and struggle through their shock and grief, they also wonder, “How am I supposed to celebrate Christmas?” says Alma Kearns, a member of the Covenant Congregational Church in Easton, Massachusetts.

She lives five minutes from the school where she frequently substitute taught.

“I haven’t put up my decorations,” Kearns says. “People feel guilty Christmas shopping.”

Celebrating seems almost impossible to the families who did not know the victims, and they know it is far worse – though unimaginable – for the families of those slain. Still, they want Christmas to be as normal as possible for their own young children.

Jack Dowling

“There are real conflicting emotions,” says Kearns, whose children are grown.

Kearns often works at the school on Fridays, but had not been called in that day. She had never taught the children who were murdered, but had taught in the room across the hall.

Kearns only slightly knew the educators who were killed. As a substitute, she had more contact with the secretary, who had called in sick that day.

Kearns first heard of the shootings when news was broadcast almost immediately after the shooting began. She watched throughout the day. Some people turned off their televisions because it was too much to bear, especially as the reports conflicted and changed so often.

Kearns believes Sandy Hook should never be reopened. “I think they should level the school and turn the spot into a memorial park.”

Covenanters Jack and Becca Dowling are chaplain coordinators with the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association’s Rapid Response Team, and the Newtown tragedy is the fifth mass shooting where they have ministered.

They and eight other team members arrived Saturday morning and have ministered to first responders and others in the community almost non-stop ever since. Jack, a retired police officer, said the emergency crews carried out their professional duties well, but nothing prepares them emotionally for what they encountered.

“You can’t be prepared for something like this.”

“This is so hard even for those who have been doing this a long time,” Jack says. “You can’t be prepared for something like this.”

The chaplains have ministered to people of all ages in the wake of the “senseless evil.” Jack recalled an eight-year-old boy who had come to light a candle at one of the numerous memorials that line the streets.

The chaplains also have ministered to family members of the victims, often at the visitations prior to funerals. “You might think the people would resent everyone coming in from the outside, but they have been very appreciative,” Jack says. “They want to be prayed for.”

“You start to pray for people, and they just start weeping,” Becca says.

The Dowlings have ministered at more than 30 disaster sites around the world. The Sandy Hook tragedy is the fifth mass shooting where they have responded.

They ministered to survivors of the slayings at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Virginia, where 32 people were killed and 17 injured; Crandon, Wisconsin, where six people were killed and another injured; Binghamton, New York, where 14 people were killed; and Aurora, Colorado, where 12 people were murdered and 58 injured.

The couple already was in Colorado ministering to people affected by the wildfires there when the shooting occurred at the movie theater in Aurora. The Dowlings arrived in the city within hours and sat with family members of the victims as they waited word about their loved ones.

Their ministry is largely about presence and prayer, the Dowlings says. “You’re not saying a lot,” Jack says.

All of the tragedies are horrifying and lead to terrible grief, the Dowlings say, careful to emphasize that one is not worse than the other. Still, the reaction to the Sandy Hook homicides has been different.

““There’s just a reality that no place is safe.”

“The innocence and total helplessness of the children has shaken everyone to the core emotionally and spiritually,” says Jack, who also is serving as interim pastor at Glenburn Covenant Church in the small town of Glenburn, Maine. “There’s just a reality that no place is safe.”

The Dowlings have coordinated the work of the Rapid Response team in Newtown and are among the ministry’s most experienced chaplains. “We know God has called us to this specific task,” Becca says.

The Dowlings say the BGEA never forces itself on the community, but is welcomed because it is so highly regarded. They also do not engage any family members unless requested. (In Newtown, State Patrol officers have been assigned to each family to run any needed interference with media and others wanting to connect.)

Many of the BGEA chaplains are former police officers, firefighters, or have worked as chaplains serving with emergency responder departments. All of them have received Critical Incidence Stress Management training or other training through the association.

Ministering at tragedies can take a toll on the chaplains, but the Dowlings say they all are bolstered through prayer and scripture. They also debrief each morning and evening, which gives them a chance to talk and minister to one another.

The chaplains also are sensitive to the needs of the ministers in the community. “One of our ministry priorities is to come along pastors,” Jack says.

Jack will be preaching at Glenburn on Sunday, but says he and other BGEA chaplains are always available to the people with whom they ministered. “We don’t just go in there and leave.”

Memories of tragedies also never leave, but survivors and others affected are able to experience healing.

Rob Lowe was a senior at a school neighboring the Columbine campus when two teens murdered 12 students and one teacher while wounding 21 others on April 20, 1999.

Every year, Lowe, who is now pastor of Federated Covenant Church in Dowagiac, Michigan, schedules a “solemn day” to remember and reflect on the tragedy, the victims he knew, and the people who helped him and others move forward.

“The people who were part of my life – their words and their lives – are still with me,” Lowe said. “I’m thankful for the counselors, teachers, and pastors who were there,” Lowe says. “There were lots of tears after tears to share in those moments.”

Lowe had been eating lunch off campus when he heard the sirens of emergency vehicles that were speeding to the scene. Lowe is careful about what he watches when the media covers the latest tragedy and includes footage from Columbine. “I avoid the videos as much as possible,” he says.

Still, Lowe emphasizes, “The memories don’t destroy us.”

In addition to the people who walked with him through the chaotic emotional aftermath, Lowe says Miroslav Volf’s book, The End of Memory: Remembering Rightly in a Violent World, has been critical to helping him move forward well.

Volf, an evangelical scholar who was persecuted in his native Yugoslavia while under Communist rule, writes about seeking to redeem our painful pasts.

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