In The Midst Of Newtown's Grief, Pastor Says There Is Light

Reverend Matthew Crebbin had to comfort shocked residents after the shooting in Newtown, Connecticut that killed 28 people last year. A year later, he speaks with host Michel Martin about the role faith played in keeping the town together.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Coming up, editor Ahmad Omar and I will hear what you had to say about conversations we've had on the program recently. That's ahead in BackTalk. But we're going to start the program today with Faith Matters. That's the part of the program where we talk about matters of faith and spirituality. Today, we want to look at a year of healing, faith and recovery. This weekend marks the one-year anniversary of the shootings in Newtown, Connecticut.

That's where a young man shot and killed his mother, then walked into Sandy Hook Elementary School and killed 26 more people - including many, many children. And then he killed himself. Immediately after that, the town held an interfaith memorial service. The Reverend Matthew Crebbin, senior pastor of the Newtown Congregational Church, opened the service with this.

(SOUNDBITE OF SERMON)

REVEREND MATTHEW CREBBIN: We needed this. We needed to be together here in this room, in the gymnasium, outside the doors of this school, in living rooms around the world. We needed to be together.

MARTIN: A year later, we wanted to know how the community was doing and that Reverend Crebbin was kind enough to speak with us about that, and he's with us now. Welcome, thank you so much for joining us on this - what has to be a very difficult time for you and for everyone else.

CREBBIN: Yes, it's very good to be with you, Michel. But indeed, even while I do have a sense of connection to others beyond Newtown, it really is a challenging time for us within our community.

MARTIN: Can you describe, as best you can, what the emotional state is of people there and if can you compare that to a year ago? I mean, certainly the shock has lessened, but what do you think is the overall state of being of people there?

CREBBIN: Yeah, I think it's really difficult for us to really even give a complete overview that captures everyone because, you know, the grief that people experience is such an individual journey that people really are in many, many different places. What I would say is I think, you know, a year ago and even for the time just after the tragedy in December, you know, we were in a state of shock. And I would liken that to what the body experiences just after having some kind of significant trauma, where the body itself goes into shock. And oftentimes, it's not until a period of time after that initial shock that you really start to experience the depth of pain of an injury - as we move further away from the initial days of the experience from last year.

You know, a lot of what was trauma and really shock and numbness gave way to other kinds of emotions and challenges. And so people are experiencing those in all kinds of ways. And certainly an anniversary - the one-year anniversary is a reminder. It takes people back to their dealings and to their experiences and - but in some ways, in a new way because they may not have been able to process them in those early days, in those early moments in the same way that they are now.

MARTIN: You know, one of the things that has been noteworthy about this from the standpoint of the - being in the media myself, is that people speaking on behalf of people in the town have asked for privacy from the public and, I think most particularly, the news media - during this one-year anniversary. I wanted to ask you if you could talk more about that. I also wanted to tell you that, you know, from my standpoint, it's a little bit tricky because I have covered many, many tragedies where people feel very much ignored. And they don't feel that what they've gone through has been respected if people don't pay attention. If you see what I am saying...

CREBBIN: Yeah. Yeah.

MARTIN: ...So can you talk a little bit more about what the...

CREBBIN: Right.

MARTIN: ...Feelings are around that question?

CREBBIN: Sure. It is a real challenge. I think for our community, which was so overwhelmed by attention in those early days - at the same time, I - you know, I am certainly one who thinks that there is a story here of people moving in the midst of tremendous sorrow and grief and trauma, and trying to find their way. And it's one of the reasons why, you know, I took a little time out to be with you. I think there's a lot of folks that really need their privacy. And we also know that some of our folks who feel so concerned about being out and about - and the challenge for us, as we know one of the deepest things about grief is that isolation does not really help us in our grief.

And if we're not able to find connection and to be with others to find support, that that's oftentimes not very helpful. So that's part of the balancing act that we're trying to do here in Newtown is to recognize ways that we can hopefully allow people to feel comfortable enough to go out.

MARTIN: I'm speaking with Reverend Matthew Crebbin. He's senior pastor of the Newtown Congregational Church, as you might imagine. We're speaking with him as we remember the one-year anniversary of the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, which took place a year ago this weekend. As a person who has chosen to, and one might argue, been anointed to speak in behalf of the community, is there anything in particular you would wish to be sure that we think about?

CREBBIN: Well, my pastoral sensibilities certainly say that I would hope people would hold this community in their thoughts and prayers. The tremendous grief that's has been experienced here, you know, continues to be a part of the life of this community. Even while there are - what I also tell people as a person of faith that Newtown is cracked. And I have used a line from a Leonard Colin song, that there's a crack in everything, it's how the light gets in.

So even in the midst of grief and trauma, I would want people to know that while many in our community still have been deeply impacted by this experience and have a long journey ahead, there is light that's shining in the midst of our own brokenness and the way people have responded to each other and the way in which people have reached out to the wider world. And I would also invite people to not only remember Newtown, but to remember all the people who are affected by gun violence and by the impact that that has. Certainly, here in Newtown, many of us are aware that there are many folks that people don't pay attention to who have experienced the same grief and trauma in ways similar to us, who have lost beloved children, beloved spouses, and partners, sisters and brothers. And their grief is just as real and deep as ours.

MARTIN: Well, to that end, I mean, it was a couple of months after the tragedy at Newtown, you signed a letter with thousands of other clergy calling for universal background checks and assault weapons banded. It seemed, at the time, that there was momentum around those initiatives and that momentum has - seems to have entirely evaporated. And I wanted to, you know, ask how you feel about that. I mean, is that a faith-testing experience for you?

CREBBIN: Well, what I would liken it to is to say that just as our journey here in Newtown is a long journey, I would also say that to reduce the effects of gun violence in our community is also a long journey. And it's not one that I particularly thought we would solve in six months or even a year. And I was actually just down yesterday at the national vigil that was sponsored by the Newtown Foundation with the National Cathedral in D.C. where we gathered folks and remembered all of those who have been lost to gun violence. And you know, my experience is that really, what's happening is people are deepening connections and coalitions.

And we're recognizing that whether we're in Newtown, in suburban or rural communities or in inner city urban communities, that there is this sorrow that connects us and this deep compassion as well. And I think that those coalitions are continuing to get stronger, to be honest with you. And I think, the long term - I really believe that the communities will seek ways to find peace and to reduce the impact of families, like our families here in Newtown, and communities like ours just being traumatized by the effects of guns.

MARTIN: How are you doing?

CREBBIN: I'm - you know, I'm - I have my days that are up and down. And even moments - from moment to moment that are challenging. I've been fortunate enough to have a lot of support from folks both within this community and also beyond it. And some of the partnerships that we've made, you know, with folks in Hartford, in the inner city, and who have been journeying with us and have, you know - that I've made connections to, I think, has just really sustained me. And I just offer my thanks and celebrate the way in which so many have provided me with support. It's very clear to me that I'm cracked as well. I'm broken. Sorrow is a part of my life. But I have certainly experienced the light of grace and of God, in the midst of that and I hope in a small way, shed a little bit of light out to others.

MARTIN: Will you be preaching about what happened last year this weekend?

CREBBIN: You know, I'm going to be preaching about joy on Sunday and because that is the third Sunday for us of Advent and it is when we light our candle, which is the candle of joy. And I'll be talking about how joy is different than happiness. That we're not people who look at happiness - the root for happiness, as you might realize if you think about it, is the same root as happenstance or haphazard. And that happiness is really rooted in this notion that somehow we are dependent upon circumstances around us as to whether we'll be happy or not. And really for people of faith, joy is a deeper sense that we are held in something that sustains us, beyond even our ability to recognize, sometimes even in the moment.

And that we really need, in this season of Advent, to know that God continues to hold us, and that God's joy - God's joy in terms of God's hopes for us, God's care for us, God's love for us - that that deep and abiding presence, especially for us as Christians, that comes to us in the love of Christ born among us, is something that we can rely on, even when we may not feel happy. And even when at initial blush, we might say, how can we be joyous here a year later? And yet, there is light in the midst of our lives and there is grace that holds us and calls us and comforts us. And so that's some of what I'll be talking about this Sunday.

MARTIN: That was the Reverend Matthew Crebbin, senior pastor at Newtown Congregational Church. He was kind enough to join us from his office in Newtown, Connecticut. Reverend Crebbin, grace and peace to you, also.

CREBBIN: Thank you so much, Michel.

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