The December 14 anniversary passed unnoticed for most of the world. Yet, just four years ago, Adam Lanza rocked the world when in an act of unspeakable evil, he killed 20 children and six teachers at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut.
At memorial services for the victims it is common to toll a bell 26 times – once for each of the children and teachers who died that horrible morning.
When the faith community tolls a memorial bell, it rings 28 times, to include Lanza and his mother, Nancy, who he killed before wrecking his havoc at the school.
“They were members of our community,” said Kristen Switzer, associate pastor of youth and mission at Newtown Congregational Church. “We choose love over hate. We choose forgiveness over hate. We choose community over brokenness.”
I interviewed Kristen at the God and Guns conference in New York City in October. The incident hovers over Newtown like a fog. People function. They eat and drink, marry and give in marriage. The city moves, the elementary school has been razed and a new school built.
But everywhere the misty wet, seeping blanket of memory permeates the town and its residents like a morning fog that rolled in off the ocean and settled.
When you are in the “depth of despair” from that mass killing “there is literally nothing left to do but love,” said Switzer, explaining why the faith community includes Lanza and his mother in their memorials and prayers.
Switzer grew up in Newtown and attended Sandy Hook school.
“When I get together with friends we know we will end up talking about it,” she said. “The memory is relentless.”
And yet, she and Newtown friends feel they live in an alternate reality. Their past and future is heavily linked to that day and every step, corner, sign, shrine and memorial in town reminds them #WeAreNewtown or #NewtownStrong, they know the rest of the world has moved on.
“We’re always thinking about that day,” Switzer said. “And no one else is.”
Switzer was not living in Newtown on that fateful day, but she came quickly to volunteer, sorting donated goods and sifting through email messages from around the globe, passing on those that required attention.
“One day I looked up and people from the Amish community where five girls had been killed at school (in 2006) were there. They had driven to see us. That’s when I realized the depth of our situation.”
That’s when she knew Newtown would be dealing with the aftermath for many years.
Today Switzer is a youth and mission pastor in her hometown, which itself has a mission: to end gun violence once and for all.
“We are all responsible for the state of our nation, good and bad,” she said. “We don’t have the privilege of being silent anymore. You must get active before it happens in your community…because it will.”