NEWTOWN, Conn. — Rev. Mel Kawakami, senior pastor at Newtown United Methodist Church, is facing the monumental task of helping this small Connecticut town come to grips with overwhelming grief over last week’s massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School.
Kawakami and other local clerics representing different faiths joined President Obama on Sunday night at a ceremony honoring the memories of the 20 children and six school staff members who were killed by a gunman who then took his own life.
Before the crowd observed a moment of silence, Kawakami led a prayer, saying, “We know those who are lost, because they’re ours, Lord — not names on some list, but our mothers, our sisters, our brothers, our friends. Kindred all — because if we did not know them ourselves, we know someone who did.”
During Sunday morning’s service at the church, 28 candles on the altar were lit, representing 27 victims (including the shooter’s mother) and the gunman himself.
“We’ve seen this before. We must forgive like before. But I’m not sure I’m there yet,” Kawakami admitted before a capacity crowd. “The tears are still fresh. The pain is still raw. But each tear shed brings us to a place of greater compassion. Open yourself up to the pain so we can heal.”
Digital First Media reported that congregation members found comfort in his words. “He was right to the point and what he said was warranted,” said Ron Eiseman, a 13-year resident of the town. “We’ve always been a tight-knit community, but it’s going to take a while. You’re foolish if you think you can forgive something like that right away.”
Rich and Connie Caruso were still wiping away tears after the service. “He made us feel like there is hope for tomorrow,” Mrs. Caruso said.
Shortly after the shooting on Friday, Kawakami told the United Methodist News Service that church members were “still holding our breath” while awaiting news of the full scope of the tragedy. “We’re trying to keep our lines open,” he said. “We have already tried to reach out. We have communications circles that are trying to canvass our congregation.”
The Sandy Hook, Conn., church — which has about 600 members — is within walking distance of the elementary school. Kawakami said the church was already serving as a respite center for Red Cross first responders, and its sanctuary was open for prayer.
“We are in the midst of Advent, and the light is coming,” Kawakami said. “And we are praying for the light.”
Kawakami, a Sansei, grew up in San Jose. His mother was a Buddhist and his father was a Methodist, and he attended both San Jose Buddhist Church Betsuin and Wesley United Methodist Church, which were a block apart in San Jose’s Japantown. While attending University of the Pacific in Stockton, he spent a year in India, focusing on religion. He entered Harvard Seminary School and earned master’s degrees in both theology and divinity.
Prior to becoming senior pastor at Newtown on July 1, 2008, he was senior pastor at Simsbury Methodist Church for five years and previously head of the Pastoral Counseling Center in Manchester and interim pastor at Pleasant Valley and Memorial United Methodist Church in Avon. He has served as chair of the New York Conference Board of Ordained Ministry and of the New York Conference Sexual Ethics Response Team, and is a licensed professional counselor.
Upon arriving at Sandy Hook with his wife, Dorothy, and their canine friends Mac and Maisie, Kawakami told The Newtown Bee, “I think that the bishop was looking at my ‘grace and gifts’ to bring to this church. Hearing and recognizing God’s life within the lives of the congregants and how that translates into living in a very difficult world is one of the gifts I bring. My own life experiences have given me an openness to the way in which the spirit moves in people’s lives and that’s important for life in a church, here in Newtown or anywhere.”