At memorial services for the victims of Sandy Hook Elementary School, it is common for a bell to toll 26 times — once for each of the 20 children and six teachers who died beneath Adam Lanza’s withering onslaught four years ago this week, on Dec. 14, 2012.
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,” says 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.”
When you are in the “depth of despair” from the mass killing that changed their town forever, “there is literally nothing left to do but love,” said Switzer. She was attending the God and Guns 2016 conference at Riverside Church in New York City Oct. 7, a conference to equip church leaders to work against gun violence.
“Newtown” came up at least every hour in conversation and plenary sessions as an example of mass killing with weapons that should not be in the public domain and for positive community response.
But that day is a “constant” for Switzer, who grew up in Newtown and attended Sandy Hook school.
“When I get together with friends we know we will end up talking about it. 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 of #WeAreNewtown or #NewtownStrong. They know the rest of the world has moved on.
“We’re always thinking about that day,” Switzer says. “And no one else is.”
Switzer was not living in Newtown on that fateful day, but she came quickly to volunteer. The church and community were flooded with donations and communiqués from across the globe. She sorted goods and sifted through emails, 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 says. “We don’t have the privilege of being silent anymore. You must get active before it happens in your community … because it will.”