Churches grieve Sandy Hook shootings

CBF churches across the country paused during Sunday worship services Dec. 16 to pray for victims of violence in Newtown, Conn.

By Bob Allen

Pastor Jason Coker opened his third Sunday in Advent sermon at Wilton Baptist Church, written earlier in the week, with words describing irrepressible joy.

“Circumstances dictate change,” Coker told parishioners Dec. 16 before switching gears to preach a new sermon rewritten in light of Friday’s massacre of 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in nearby Newtown, Conn.

“Newtown is 15 miles from our church, and we have a family who lives there,” Coker said in an e-mail to “Three of our parishioners work with people and have friends who lost children.”

“It is an incredibly painful time for our whole area,” said Coker, a former member of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship Coordinating Council who last year chaired the personnel committee. “The only thing that I can compare it to is 9/11, when our town lost eight fathers.”

In his revised sermon, Coker said it became personal for him, when reading through the names and birth dates of victims it struck him that nearly all of the slain children were born the same year as his oldest child.

“I paused to think about how I would respond if this had been my first-born son,” Coker said. “It is so incomprehensible that I simply don’t know. It made me angry to think about it -- so angry. In the midst of my anger, I realized that this is how hate breeds hate, fear breeds fear, evil breeds evil.”

Coker said many of the calls he’s heard advocating for tighter gun control or better school security are responses motivated by fear. While natural, he said, “These reactions provide no healing and no help to the families who have lost children and loved ones.”

“Love is the other reaction,” Coker said. “Love is the way forward. When hate raises its evil head, we should love.”

Coker said he honestly doesn’t know how he might respond if he were in the shoes of those personally affected by the Newtown tragedy, but “I hope I would be big enough to live into -- at the very least, I would hope someone would tell me” that love is the answer.

“I don’t say ‘love’ lightly or tritely, like some lyric in a pop song,” Coker said. “I say ‘love’ from the power and depths of our sacred Scripture that boldly and unashamedly declares ‘God is love.’”

Far from a local tragedy, grief over the Sandy Hook massacre loomed over worship services nationwide on the week in the cycle of Sundays leading up to Christmas that is supposed to celebrate the joy of Christ’s coming.

Jim Somerville, pastor of First Baptist Church in Richmond, Va., described a “shockingly symbolic” awkward moment in his Sunday service when the pink joy candle kept going out despite frequent attempts by a group of students to relight it.

“Maybe those students didn’t fail,” Somerville said. “Maybe they lit the candle over and over again and God kept snuffing it out, whispering, ‘No, not today.’”

“You can’t really schedule joy, and unfortunately you can’t really schedule grief,” Somerville said. “It comes when it comes, and it came today.”

In Oklahoma City, site of the terrorist bomb attack on the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building on April 19, 1995, members of First Baptist Church prayed for the children of Sandy Hook, their parents, teachers and staff of the school and others dealing with grief and pain triggered by the tragedy.

“Of all cities, we know that this is not the first time tragedy triggered by the hands of evil has come home,” Pastor Tom Ogburn said in his sermon. “We also come as testimonies that the story does not, cannot, must not end with the triumph of evil.”

“If ever our community needed for us to live out and speak out as the people of Advent it is now,” Ogburn said. “If ever our world needed for us to lift our voices with the hope of God’s comfort and the power of God peace, it is now. If ever we needed to be the people who are changed by God to speak a word that God can and will still change the world, that time is now.”

Bill Shiell, pastor of First Baptist Church in Knoxville, Tenn., penned a third Sunday of Advent lament “over the loss of innocent life.”

“Today, we grieve with the parents who sit around Christmas trees with presents unopened, around tables where there will always be empty chairs,” Shiell wrote.

“While we wish we could bring each of those angels back, we cannot,” said Susan Sparks, pastor of Madison Avenue Baptist Church in New York City. “We can, however, honor their memory by reaching out to the Newtown community, by working against gun violence to make the world a safer place for our future children, and by upholding not an ethic of revenge, but an ethic of love.

Chris Chapman at First Baptist Church in Raleigh, N.C., voiced prayer for “a small community in Connecticut devastated by violence, that families which have lost loved ones would find comfort, a peaceful community thrown into chaos would be able to pull together, and in response to yet another tragedy with all too familiar details, we might finally take action as a nation to make all of our children safer.”

Trinity Baptist Church of Hanover, N.H., observed a time of focused silent prayer for the people of Newtown, said co-pastor Ken Hale. He and his wife, Sandy Hale, head of the Baptist Student Union at Dartmouth College, are former coordinators of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of the Northeast.

On top of helping church members make sense of the tragedy, Wilton Baptist Church’s Coker had to figure out how to respond to threatened funeral protests by Westboro Baptist Church in an area where most people don’t know a lot about Baptists.

“Of all the things to deal with, I never thought I’d have to defend what it means to be a Baptist in a context like this,” Coker said.

-- With reporting by David Wilkinson.