Church Hill Road, running through the heart of Newtown, Connecticut, down to the village of Sandy Hook, is well named. The civic thread connects many of the town’s spiritual centers: A Congregational Church, a Roman Catholic Church, two Episcopal Churches, and the Newtown United Methodist Church all find their homes on or near it.
“The religious leaders cooperated on a number of levels as faith communities,” says now-retired Pastor Mel Kawakami, M.Div. ‘74, Th.M. ‘85, who spent the final eight years of his professional life as pastor of the Newtown United Methodist Church in the heart of Sandy Hook. The town’s faith association, which also includes Baha’i, Muslim, and Jewish congregations, often came together to liaise with the town’s government on issues around food insufficiency, low-income housing, and support for the senior citizen populations.
That community connection, forged over years of meetings and jointly sponsored service projects, galvanized on December 14, 2012, when 20-year-old Adam Lanza attacked Sandy Hook Elementary School, killing six adults and 20 children under age 8 in the deadliest mass shooting at a primary school in U.S. history.
In many ways, Kawakami’s professional experience prepared him to support people during a tragedy. The Harvard Divinity School alum’s career took him across the country and the world as a pastoral counselor, a licensed therapist and a disaster relief volunteer offering comfort to devastated communities, including during Sept. 11, Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy, and the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, among others.
But Kawakami can tell you, no one is ever truly prepared for tragedy.
The day started like any other. Kawakami was in a doctor’s appointment with his phone off when the attack happened. The minute he turned it back on, it lit up with messages from across Newtown’s faith community and beyond.
“The Monsignor at the Roman Catholic Church had his secretary call all of [the religious leaders in town],” says Kawakami. “[There] were calls from my own office, from the church school that we [ran], … my deacon, basically everybody called.”
After checking in with his church’s staff, he rushed to the community’s firehouse, the staging area for survivors and families, not knowing what to expect, but fearing the worst.
“Walking into the firehouse that day, I knew a lot of people. A lot of our congregation was school related,” explains Kawakami. “We had teachers and aides and administrators and school bus drivers, cafeteria workers, not to mention parents and students who were all part of the church.”
Much of the rest of the day passed in a blur: answering frantic questions from parents wanting to know if their kids were safe; attempting to reunite families as quickly as possible; finding out if anyone was missing or unaccounted for; getting contact information for those who didn’t know yet about the tragedy; and processing the final, devastating announcement from then-Governor Dannel Malloy that all of the “happy” reunions were finished — any family left at the firehouse was unlikely to be reunited with their child.