As the bells tolled at Sacred Hearts parish Friday in remembrance of the victims of the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School, there were mothers with tears in their eyes.
“It was a very solemn and prayerful moment,” said the Rev. John Delaney, pastor at Sacred Hearts in the Bradford section of Haverhill. “People have taken the whole story to heart, thinking about how people can hurt others and the loss of innocent lives.”
Delaney and other local clergy said the murders of 20 children and six adults in Newtown, Conn., Dec. 14 have people asking “Where was God?” and “Why would God allow such a tragedy to happen?”
“God is present in the world and he does not allow things like this to happen,” he said.
Ministers said God gave humans free will which they can use to do good or evil, and many chose to do the latter.
“Even though God is awesome, he gave everyone free will, and if people chose to do evil, it’s not God, it’s the devil working through people,” said Pastor Sean Theodore of Abundant Grace Church in Derry, N.H.
The Rev. Barbara Reifschneider, pastor of Redeemer Lutheran Church in Lawrence agreed.
“There’s a natural order in the world and evil does exist,” Reifschneider said. “At these moments, we feel God’s love healing us and giving us strength. God is weeping with us, and is up to us to do his work of mercy so we can make the world a better place, and that’s the important part.”
The Rev. Martin Hyatt, at St. Basil Seminary in Methuen, echoed Reifschneider’s words.
“God didn’t do it. He is weeping with us and when I see the news, I see Jesus suffering on the cross all over again,” Hyatt said.
Local clergy said people are struggling to understand the Newtown tragedy while dealing with their own suffering this Christmas, including the loss of loved ones, illnesses and financial insecurity. That is why several local congregations host “Blue Christmas” services for people who have difficulty dealing with the holidays.
Rev. John Zehring, pastor of South Church in Andover said the service held at his church took on a whole new meaning this year.
“People are focused on grieving and they have to work through their grieving and sadness,” Zehring said. “We shared our parish with people and I used the Advent messages of love, peace and joy as a anchor at a time when they don’t know what to think. Afterward, we opened the sanctuary so people could sit alone, reflect and pray.”
Although the killings were in Newtown, Conn., people are still reeling over the tragedy. To help local residents deal with the pain, the Rev. Margaret Goad and members of the council at Ballard Vale United Church hosted a prayer vigil on Friday.
“The pain is great and we needed to do something. This was a chance to come together and lay down the pain we have before God with prayers, candles and music,” Goad said. “At times like this, we rely on our faith. I like to listen to people, find out what’s going on, speak to them, and let them understand that God understands their pain. There’s no answer that can take away the pain or the loss.”
Abundant Grace Church in Derry, N.H. is sponsoring a workshop on healing and forgiveness.
“It’s going to help so many people who are broken,” Theodore said. “This is for anyone that’s seeking forgiveness from God or anyone.”
The Rev. Richard Knight, pastor of Trinitarian Congregational Church in North Andover, became emotional as he spoke about the students killed in Newtown. He has three children ages 3 to 12.
“For a lot of people, it’s hard to have a merry Christmas. We can have a holy, profoundly Christmas because God has come to redeem us and this is a world that needs a heavenly light,” Knight said.
On Christmas Eve, the Christ candle on the Christmas wreath is the only light shinning in the sanctuary and members go one by one to light their own candles until the church is ablaze with light.
“That will be even more powerful this year because when you see the darkness and people reaching for the light it’s just beautiful,” Knight said. “These are times when people are coming for answers and we want to reassure them about God’s presence when their hearts are broken.’
With the Newtown killings coming a few days before Christmas, ministers said it makes us see biblical history repeats itself. After the birth of Jesus, the Three Wise Men left Bethlehem without telling King Herod where they had found the manger with the Christ child. Herod then ordered to kill all children under the age of 3.
“Evil existed then and it exists now, but we have to remember that darkness won’t overcome the light. Emanuel means ‘God with us’ and he says ‘I am with you always,’ “ Reifschneider said.
Members of First Church Congregational in Methuen also had a Christmas pageant last week, and instead of talking about joy as part of the third week in Advent, the Rev. Vicki S. Keene said she felt called to preach on peace. She concluded the service by leading the congregation in singing, “Let there be Peace on Earth.”
“It all begins with respect. The message I had was that we need to take care of one another, to live our life with greater integrity, to honor the lives that were lost,” Keene said.
“I do feel to the very depth of my being that this is not God’s will, nor God’s doing, particularly in the season of Advent. I just pray this pivotal event opens our eyes and we do not accept hopefulness and helplessness in our lives,” Keene said.
Theodore said there is a silver lining to the tragedy.
“There are 20 beautiful souls in heaven and people are focusing on God and are getting on their knees,” Theodore said. “This is a healing process through prayer, counseling reading of the Word and forgiveness. God can show us how strong he is, how he can heal and strengthen us.”
The massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School is the second deadliest shooting at a school since the shooting at Virginia Tech in 2007 when 33 people were killed. Since 1998 when 15 students died at Columbine High School, there has been other school mass shootings including Northern Illinois University in 2008 where six people died; five girls killed execution style at the West Nickel Mines Amish School in Pennsylvania Dutch country in 2006; and the Red Lake Senior High shooting in 2005 that left 10 dead.
“You want to allow children to remain children and not take away their innocence. Tragedies like this takes your childhood and forces you to grow up, it can also put Christmas into perspective because you can get carry away, but this just makes you focus on things that are really important especially children,” said Reifschneider, pastor of Redeemer Lutheran Church in Lawrence.
Hyatt, of St. Basil Seminary in Methuen, said God not only comforts his people during times of sorrow, but offers them an opportunity to change and improve.
“Where do we go from here? We have to pray for all those involved, for all the children and for ourselves so we an be the loving and holy people God calls us to be,” Martin said.
Although people are not going to places of worship in droves like they did after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, some clergy members saw more people. Rabbi Robert Goldstein, spiritual leader of Temple Emanuel in Andover, saw an increase attendance at the religious school last week.
“The role of the churches and synagogue, even if they’re lapsed, is not because religion has all the answers. It’s because religion provides a way for people to come together when they’re no answers,” Goldstein said. “Religion and faith provide a way for people to come together when there seems to be no answers.”
Goldstein said celebrating the end of Hanukkah last weekend was bitter sweet because of the shootings on Dec. 14. During the Sabbath services he spoke of the importance of holding on to values such as love.
“Of course we’re sad. These are emotions we can’t ignore, so at a time when things seem to be out of control and nothing makes sense, we need to reaffirm that love matters and how we express love,” Goldstein said.