Friday, December 14, is a date the small town of Newtown, Connecticut, will never forget. It is the date that the nearly 700 hundred children attending Sandy Hook Elementary School, their parents, siblings and extended family members and many in the community had their lives changed forever as 20 children and six adults lost their lives by the hand of a gunman who sought out the defenseless.
|Pastor Philip Morgan and his wife, Alli.|
According to Philip Morgan, pastor of First Assembly of God in nearby Brookfield, Connecticut, the impact of the shooting reached far beyond immediate families. "Indeed, there's no one in our city who doesn't have a connection in some way to the tragedy," Morgan says. "None of the shooting victims were from our immediate congregation, but almost immediately, connections began to appear."
As Morgan lists off some of the church members' connections, the impact area of the horrific act quickly broadens.
"Sandy cared for a young special needs girl, who she took to school late on Friday morning, just 10 minutes before the shooting - the little girl was killed," Morgan begins. "Bob was the dispatcher who took the first frantic 911 calls from the school; Meagan, a freshman college student, taught ballet to two of the girls who were killed; Pete manages a nearby Starbucks, one of his barista staff was a substitute teacher on Friday and was killed; we have several teachers in our congregation who have worked over the years with the Sandy Hook principal, who was killed; Paul, another teacher, works with a parent whose son was killed . . . ."
Morgan says that First Assembly, along with many other churches in the community, offered a prayer service that fateful Friday evening, with the church filling with the shocked, numbed and grieving, along with special services on Sunday. And Christmas, which typically arrives with an unlimited sense of happiness, joy and celebration - especially for children and families - came about with an overhanging sense of heaviness, and for some, fear and uncertainty.
"Sandy Hook is such a quiet little community," Morgan says. "Here the cliché, 'Never thought it would happen here,' really rings true. Of all the places, this really is the last place on earth to expect something like this. People have been processing disbelief for a long time. They're asking, 'Where was God?' and 'Why did He allow this to happen?'"
The Sunday following the tragedy, Morgan's sermon was entitled, "What in the world is God doing?" He explained to the hurting and still shocked audience that the Cross is the answer and sin is the problem. "Everyone was kind of numb," Morgan recalls. "People tried to make it as normal of a Christmas as possible, while victims' families were tucked away just trying to get through it as best they could."
Morgan says that the church had already planned 21 days of prayer and fasting to start the New Year, but now one of the focuses of prayer is the church's response to this crisis and those suffering due to the tragedy.
However, the evangelical community in the area is far from simply self-focused. With dozens of churches already part of an active and coordinated evangelical church fellowship, when tragedy struck, Morgan says they were able to come together quickly and begin a coordinated response.
"One of our members contacted churches who were involved in response in the Columbine and Virginia Tech tragedies to attain what to expect," Morgan says. "It was the same story - short term, the media was all over it and people were giving, but once the media spotlight went elsewhere . . . the real need is longer term."
With that in mind, the churches worked to develop a three- to five-year response effort, with the mission statement of: To create a long-term, proactive, integrated and planned response to the needs in the community following the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School, so that there is healing and Kingdom advancement.
One of the fist things the group did was set up the Sandy Hook Response Fund at a local bank.
"We want to be able to provide long-term counseling needs for victims," Morgan says. "We have two excellent, Christian counseling services in our area, and in addition to continued pastoral counseling for families, we want to offer professional counseling services as well."
Morgan is also quick to note that even if someone had no connection to this particular tragedy, there are plenty of individuals who can be impacted due to Post Traumatic Stress disorders.
"This is a trigger event," Morgan explains. "What happened here can bring up traumatic events that happened to people in their past - and their need for help can be just as great."
Morgan says that many in the community are still struggling to find answers. "Our message is that God didn't cause this," Morgan says. "This is the result of sin in the world and God is more grieved than anyone about it."
For churches and individuals outside of the area wanting to know how to help, Morgan says people can contact the church for additional information about contributing to the recovery fund.
However, Morgan's greatest request is simple. "Don't forget Newtown."
He urges churches and individuals to continue to prayer for families and long-term recovery.
"I ask people to specifically pray for the healing and recovery of the victims' families; the wider school community, students and staff; and the responders - the police and people who had to be there," Morgan says. "Also pray for the community itself. Just like somebody who had someone break into their home, that sense of violation, the city has that feeling of violation as well.
"In some ways, we almost want to get the door closed a little bit, so people can get on with their lives and their normal routine," Morgan continues. "But as I was talking with the wife of Bob, the dispatcher, she told me how you'll think you're doing okay, but then all of a sudden something will remind you of what happened, and all the emotions come flooding back . . . . "
Yet for Morgan and the churches he's working with, the answer to the problem is clear.
"The real answer - not just for Newtown or the city of Danbury, but for the nation - is revival," Morgan states. "We are desperate for an awakening and a spiritual move by God. These things are only symptomatic of the real problem - so we are praying for a real move of God across the land, and for it to start in New England as He has done it before."
For more information about Brookfield First Assembly or for contact information, see its website.