Clergy Called On To Help With Healing In Newtown

The ministers, priests and rabbis of Newtown, Conn., are taking on some of the toughest roles in the wake of the school shootings. They are presiding over funerals, comforting family members and providing support to members of the community.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And I'm Robert Siegel. In Newtown, Connecticut, religious leaders gathered this afternoon to share strategy on how best to help their hurting community. As NPR's Tovia Smith reports, the town's clergy are being tested in unprecedented ways, following Friday's devastating attack on Sandy Hook Elementary School.

TOVIA SMITH, BYLINE: Reverend Matt Crebbin of the Newtown Congregational Church says he's dealt with plenty of profound tragedy - sickness, suicide, even murder, but nothing anywhere close to what he and other pastors are facing now.

REVEREND MATTHEW CREBBIN: Wow. You know, I'm not even sure I could name, you know, they all seem so small.

SMITH: The enormity and intensity of this tragedy has left clergy scrambling for new ways to handle everything from logistics like processing donations and sharing church space for funerals to supporting each other emotionally, not unlike the way they do for those in mourning.

CREBBIN: Sometimes if we look at the big picture, then we may say, wow, this is just too much, you know. I'm a Christian, but I think it's a Buddhist philosophy that says, you know, even the longest journey begins with one step. And I think we have a long journey ahead. Good morning, sir.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Hey, how are you?

CREBBIN: Good, good, good.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: I give everybody hugs so.

CREBBIN: Yeah.

SMITH: With every embrace, Crebbin and other pastors are drawing on every ounce of their training, experience, and gut instinct.

RABBI SHAUL PRAVER: This is tough.

SMITH: Rabbi Shaul Praver says everyone grieves differently and sometimes counseling is simply a matter of trial and error.

PRAVER: You just have to watch the cues and when you find something that is comforting to them, you continue.

SMITH: For example, Rabbi Praver says, one grieving mother who he describes as a very bright and poetic woman, responded to what he calls very high spiritual ideas.

PRAVER: So I just turned to her when she was very, very distraught and I said, you were once six, where is, you know, your six-year-old? And she said, my six-year-old self is within myself. So then you have that leap of faith that when we leave this body, whatever we are, the soul that we are, will inhabit, you know, a larger vessel. And she intuitively feels like that is true. So it helped calm her down.

SMITH: It's easy to worry about saying the wrong thing, but Reverend Crebbin says that's where being a man of faith comes in handy.

CREBBIN: My faith teaches me that this isn't about me. You know, as a Christian, I'm not the savior and so I do what I am able to do and but your try also to trust that we're held by something greater and that God's grace will find ways that even I can't imagine to reach out and care for and sustain people.

SMITH: Further complicating the challenge is trying to minister not only to a congregation, but a whole community.

CREBBIN: That's another whole dimension to this. Suddenly, you know, evil has invaded this community. How are we going to cope with that?

SMITH: Father Mark Moore held a vigil at Saint John's Episcopal Church right next to the Sandy Hook Elementary School. None of his parishioners were killed, but Father Moore says he was offering comfort that was needed by everyone.

FATHER MARK MOORE: If it's war, after a natural disaster, even if it's a crime you can understand sometimes the motivation. But the slaughter of innocents without any kind of motivation is something that is so far beyond any comprehension, it causes us to have to go into the religious realm to begin to understand.

SMITH: As funerals continue in Newtown daily, the words of the clergy are resonating even to the unaffiliated like Nancy Taylor.

NANCY TAYLOR: I feel like, you know, I call him Father Bob, has been put on this earth to be here for the people of this town because he brings us all comfort without being preachy. I have a real sensation of there's an arm around my shoulders and I have no direct loss here, just the loss of the security of my community.

SMITH: In some ways, the pastors here say the hardest task is still ahead after all the funerals and services are done and there are no more rituals or roadmaps to follow forward. Tovia Smith, NPR News, Newtown, Connecticut.

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