When President Obama traveled to Newtown, Connecticut, to console that community and the nation after the massacre that killed 20 children and six adult staff at Sandy Hook Elementary School, it was Rev. Matthew Crebbin of Newtown Congregational Church who led the nationally televised interfaith memorial service. Three months after the tragedy, I emailed with Reverend Crebbin to see how Newtown is still coping, and what’s next for that community. (Our exchange has been slightly condensed and edited.)
1. Rev. Crebbin, you had the task of counseling some of the Newtown families immediately after the massacre. What was that experience like?
It was the most challenging experience of my ministry. One of the more difficult aspects of that time was the waiting that had to be endured—through the process of identification and notification. There were also teachers, staff, and first responders in those early hours who were trying to comprehend the magnitude of the event that had engulfed all of us. In that moment I was trying to help people to hang on in whatever way they could and to let them know that they were being held by God’s sustaining grace.
2. What is the mood now in Newtown, three months after the tragedy? Is there anything you can compare it with?
I think that Newtown has just begun to enter into the depths of the valley of grief and mourning. In those early months, many within our community were almost numb. I would compare it to what the body experiences just after a traumatic injury. The physical body will often shut down and go into shock. Right after December 14, our community entered into an emotional time of shock—where the depth of our grief was not yet fully felt. Now I think that many are beginning to experience the rawness of the trauma, emptiness, and loss. But even in this time there remains a palpable sense of compassion, love, and hope that continues to sustain many of us.
3. You recently signed a letter, with thousands of other clergy, calling for universal background checks and an assault weapons ban. However, the National Rifle Association is pushing hard in the other direction, reaching out to minorities and calling themselves “unapologetic and unflinching.” What does your theology say about gun legislation and about the NRA’s stance?
From Newtown, Connecticut, where I live and minister, I am concerned for my nation. America is coming dangerously close to replacing the second commandment (do not worship false idols) with the Second Amendment. The gun has been invested with authority and power far beyond its ability to deliver. This is how idols are created.
Those who advocate against common-sense legislation seem inclined to suggest that we should believe that more guns in the hands of more people (including guns specifically modeled after weapons of war with high-capacity magazines) will somehow make all of us safer. But simple statistics tell us that this is false. A gun in the home is far more likely to be used in a suicide, homicide, assault, or accidental injury than to defend one against an outside threat.
In addition, as a Christian, I follow One who tells me that love and not fear should govern our relationships with others—even those who disagree with us or who are different from us. Indeed, in Christian scripture we are told that “perfect love casts out all fear.” I believe that I am called to refuse to allow fear to govern my view of the world. To paraphrase Dr. Martin Luther King: “I choose love. (Fear) and hate are too big a burden to bear.”
4. In your opinion, what’s the most important thing we as a country can do to stop gun violence?
Laws alone will not be enough to heal the plague of gun violence. We all need to commit ourselves to the care of our communities. The most important thing that we can all do is refuse to become apathetic. We must resist the temptation to isolate ourselves and our families. We need each other. We need to build bridges across the divides of personality, religion, ethnicity, politics, etc. Isolated people in our towns and cities with little sense of connection to a grander purpose or deeper meaning are far more inclined to use violence of all kinds. In Newtown we have learned that we are all connected. What affects one affects all.
5. What are you hopeful about for the community of Newtown?
I think that Newtown has shown tremendous resiliency, compassion, and communal spirit since December 14, 2012. But those qualities were a part of our community long before that fateful day. I have a sense that our community will not allow one tragic and unimaginable day to lead us down a path of fear and despair. I am hopeful that the choices we are making day by day are leading us on a journey of healing and transformation that is not only changing us individually but as an entire community. And I am hopeful because I believe that our journey is not simply the journey of one town but of an entire nation. I am hopeful because I believe that Newtown can help to create a new America.