Newtown receives outpouring of comfort

A pastor's office overflows with items sent as gestures of support


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NEWTOWN, Conn. -- The closets are packed with boxes of prayer shawls, the pastor's office is overrun with sympathy cards that arrive by the hundreds, at least four boxes of teddy bears await distribution, and there's barely enough wall space in the hallways for all the construction-paper posters.

And still the deliveries keep coming. Candles and music CDs. Christmas ornaments and memorial bracelets.

Sympathizers from across the country have been mailing gifts and condolences to Newtown United Methodist Church, a half-mile away from Sandy Hook Elementary School, where a gunman killed 20 first-graders and six adults on Dec. 14.

Amy and Jay Thomas, former McMurray residents who now are church leaders, are in the middle of it all, helping to comfort the afflicted and to distribute the donations.

A church in Texas sent 3,200 blue rubber bracelets reading "God Is Big Enough." Those are being distributed at the entrance to the church, where mourners have been trickling in for the past nine days seeking solace and a quiet place to pray.

Other churches and individuals sent thousands of sympathy cards.

Packages addressed to specific families will be screened by the FBI before they can be sent along.

The Thomases and other church leaders still haven't decided what to do with the hundreds of prayer shawls that now fill 11 boxes and plastic totes in a storage closet near the entrance to the church's nursery school.

Friday afternoon, the U.S. Postal Service delivered 17 more large boxes with return addresses in Indiana, North Carolina, Maryland and Missouri. UPS still hadn't arrived with its Friday delivery, and international mail probably won't start arriving until after Christmas.

"The challenge is 'What do we do with all this?' We don't want boxes left in a closet," said Mr. Thomas, who is on the staff-parish relations committee. "People sent this for a reason and we have to find a way to get it to the people who need it."

From another Newtown

One bundle of cards was from a Pennsylvania church with the same name: Newtown United Methodist Church in Bucks County.

Judi Swerk, chair of the staff-parish relations committee at Pennsylvania Newtown United Methodist Church, said members of the church wanted to do something.

"We have that connection -- the same name and the same denomination. It gave us the feeling that this can happen obviously anywhere. It could have been our Newtown just as easily," said Ms. Swerk, who is a teacher's assistant at Holland Elementary School in Council Rocks School District in Bucks County, where one of her jobs is helping first-graders with math. "I look at them, and they're just babies," she said.

Last Sunday, ushers handed out blank cards with a picture of the church on the front. Members of the congregation filled them out and they were sent to Newtown, Conn.

"This was something small we could do," said Ms. Swerk. "You just want to do something and you don't know what to do. You feel like anything you could do is insignificant compared with the tragedy but it was very cathartic for us."

The cards will be distributed in Connecticut by being tucked into church bulletins at Newtown United Methodist.

Mrs. Thomas, the church's treasurer, said the outpouring has been overwhelming. "We're asking people to please donate to social service agencies in their own communities in honor of the children and teachers and victims here," said Mrs. Thomas, who grew up in Fertigs, Pa., near Oil City.

Other organizations in Newtown have been receiving donations from across the country. Mail has increased sixfold in volume, according to The Associated Press, and the Postal Service has set up a unique post office box to handle it. The United Way of Western Connecticut said the official fund for donations had $2.8 million in it Saturday.

The Thomases say the outpouring of support is touching, and that the people of Newtown appreciate that so many other feel compelled to do something to help. But what Newtown needs most of all, they say, is prayer.

"Pray that something good can somehow come out of this," said Mr. Thomas, 53. "I don't know what that something good would look like. Just somehow something good has to come of this senseless act."

Mr. Thomas, who grew up in Colegrove near Bradford, sat with his wife in the church library Friday to recount how they've been spending their time since Dec. 14 -- nearly every waking hour either at the church or at work.

Mrs. Thomas, 51, first learned of the shooting from her boss at the home heating oil company where she works part time. He told her he saw a SWAT team, ambulances and scores of police cars head toward Newtown as he made his way to the office in nearby Southbury.

It wasn't until she got home at 11:30 a.m. that she realized how severe it was. She headed immediately to the church where the Red Cross was setting up a base where first responders could eat, rest and decompress.

No one came.

"All the first responders wanted to stay" at the local firehouse, where families were being reunited with surviving children, Mrs. Thomas said. "They didn't want to leave."

The thought of it is heartbreaking, the Thomases said.

"There comes a point in time when no more kids are coming out of the school and parents are still standing there waiting," Mr. Thomas said.

When no first responders showed up, the Red Cross delivered supplies to the firehouse and Mrs. Thomas transformed the church basement into a quiet zone for parishioners and community members to find respite from the weather and from the throngs of reporters gathered outside.

Since then, the Thomases have helped organize a prayer vigil and a church family dinner. They've sorted donations, greeted visitors, handled media inquiries, consoled neighbors, directed out-of-town volunteers and ensured the church's two pastors are getting enough food and rest to be able to support parishioners and community members.

"They are laypeople who, in moments of crisis, rise to the occasion and take things off my plate," said the Rev. Mel Kawakami, senior pastor. "They show caring for the world, but they also show caring for me."

All are welcome

Mr. Thomas said his goal last week has been to welcome everyone who wants to comfort or be comforted.

"We're a Methodist church, but your faith association ends at the curb. We are a place for all faiths to come. It's a place for services and a place of quiet where you can sit down and reflect," he said.

People of all faiths have been streaming into the church, many in tears. Some have come from as far as Wales and Costa Rica.

"This is a horrific tragedy that affected so many people. It's young children that were killed, and a lot of people have small children and never think that anything like this is going to happen, but this could have happened anywhere," Mr. Thomas said.

The Thomases said that keeping busy is helping them get through the sadness that envelops this town. They say they're still in shock and that the grief hasn't hit yet. At least not full on.

The tears still come at unexpected moments. A siren of a passing ambulance draws them out.

The Thomases, like the other members of their church, have the support of a nation to help them through.

There are the crayon drawings of angels drawn by children of Pikeville United Methodist Church in Kentucky. From Brushy Creek Baptist Church in South Carolina, there are several bright yellow posters with messages such as "My heart breaks for y'all," and "Our prayers are continuous for each family in your community."

From 12th Street United Methodist Church in Huntingdon, Pa.: "You are not alone in your grief. Our church is heartsick and devastated with the tragedy to your loved ones and community."

And from little ones nationwide: varying messages of "Sory," and "Sorrey" in a pile with other cards simply stating "Merry Christmas" from children too young to understand.

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Tracie Mauriello: tmauriello@post-gazette.com or 703-996-9292.


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