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.
Then came funerals, calling hours, checking in on families and community members affected by loss, creating support groups, coordinating with the city government on memorials, and dealing with the macabre notoriety that brought a variety of people to a town still processing its grief, all in the two weeks leading up to the Christmas holiday.
“It was the heartrending work of grief work,” says Kawakami. “I found myself addressing what was in front of me and immediate. And in a weird kind of way that helped me get through it, if only because there was always something else that I needed to do.”
The Newtown faith community found comfort in each other at a group prayer vigil attended by President Obama. Security measures for the president’s visit meant that the clergy had time to connect while they waited.
“It turned out to be a blessing in disguise,” says Kawakami. “Because while he met with all the families of the people who had lost children, we were, in essence, locked in a room together for about 90 minutes. We got to really touch base with one another, check in with one another, and ask the question ‘How goes it with your soul?’
“It ended up being a mutual aid in the midst of great distress, where we wouldn’t have had time to do that otherwise.”
In the years since the tragedy, Newtown’s faith association took the painful lessons from their experience and used them to help other communities affected by gun violence. In 2015, they sent a delegation to help Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, also known as Mother Emanuel, in South Carolina after their shooting, and also sent supportive banners and cards for their church bulletins.
“In the face of such darkness, we as humans have to respond in some way. And [you] can respond by folding up and going back to your room and pulling the covers over your head, or you could respond by doing something about the situation,” says Kawakami.
Now in retirement, Kawakami helps others through advocacy on issues profoundly personal, from gun violence to the detention centers at the U.S. border.
“You may have heard from the Jewish community and from the Asian community the phrase ‘Never again.’ Well, the return of that phrase has come to be ‘Never again is now.’”
On both sides of Kawakami’s family, in the 1940s, members were forced into World War II internment camps in Wyoming.
“ [F]or the Japanese community, it’s stirred up around what’s going on with immigration and what’s going on at the border. The idea of camps [and] detention centers … touches a nerve for Japanese in ways that it may not for anybody else. So, you know, there’s [a] kind of concentrated call to action.”
This story is part of the To Serve Better series, exploring connections between Harvard and neighborhoods across the United States.