On Saturday afternoon, Pastor William Doster was deciding what to include in his Sunday sermon at the First Reformed Church of Nyack.
Faced with a community searching for answers following the horror of the , he thought about domestic violence, child abuse, and gun control.
“There is a kind of reality that children have that was unheard of 20 years ago,” Rev. Doster, who is serving an interim position, said.
With his ideas admittedly incomplete, Rev. Doster reflected on the challenge of balancing the needs of a community to celebrate the upcoming Christmas holiday – members of First Reformed Church were busy preparing for the 5 p.m. Christmas Pageant – with the overwhelming sense of shock and loss.
Religious leaders came into new focus over the weekend as the terrifying details of the attack were revealed and made the deaths of children ages 6 and 7 even more unfathomable. After Newtown pastor Robert Weiss became a voice for the grieving town, clergy emerged to guide the public through the questions of how and why such a tragedy could happen, and to turn the conversation toward healing and change.
“God has nothing to do with this,” said Monsignor Hilary Franco of Saint Augustine Catholic Church in Ossining. “He has given us free will.” Monsignor Franco will address the structure of today’s American family and the impact of broken homes on children during his Sunday homily. Gun control will also be addressed. “I am very sad that recently these things are happening in schools across the country. That is so so bad of an image for the world that we are allowed to have these kinds of heavy weapons in our hands.”
At Scarsdale Congregational Church, the Rev. Frances Wise Grenly planned to remind her congregants that, “For us as well as our Jewish friends celebrating Hanukkah, both faiths look at this as a time when light comes into a dark world and we have certainly had more than our share of darkness in recent months. It behooves us to remember the light.”
Like Monsignor Franco, Rev. Grenly planned to question why semi-automatic weapons like the ones used by the gunman are available to the general population. Rabbi Mark Sameth of Pleasantville Community Synagogue reminded congregants during his Friday and Saturday services that Jewish tradition does not allow hunting for sport.
“As Americans we need to realize that the right to bear arms is not an unqualified right,” said Rabbi Sameth. “There is no right in this country of a private citizen, for example, to own a bazooka, a heat-seeking missile, or other military arms. Automatic and semi-automatic assault weapons should be classified as such, and banned. A group of U.S. mayors and a group of police chiefs of U.S. cities would absolutely agree with us on that. We need to organize to put energy behind the anti-gun violence movement.”
For Father Richard Kunz of the Grace Episcopal Church in White Plains, the Newtown killings brought back difficult memories from the six years he spent in Honduras, where he lost close friends to gun violence.
Father Kunz planned to go on with a regularly-scheduled family service but acknowledge the events and remind congregants to trust God to bring them through the hard times. He pointed to the Biblical story of the “Feast of the Holy Innocents” in which King Herod had young children massacred in an attempt to kill the infant Jesus. “Jesus does not say that catastrophes will not happen, but that God will be with us,” said Father Kunz. “I think right now is a very harsh and painful reminder of how fragile life is. It is a reminder to treasure one another.”
Father George Hazlaris felt like he took “a brick to the head” Saturday morning when he made his usual rounds at the Greek Orthodox Church of Our Savior school in Rye, some of whose students are similar in age to the victims of the Newtown shooting. The church held an impromptu prayer service Friday evening in response to the community’s need to grieve. On Sunday, Hazlaris said the focus would be on blessings and, like Father Kunz, “To be more compassionate. … What will make this a full tragedy is if no one makes any changes in their lives to love and appreciate each other.”
“The truth is, we clergy say all the things we have been taught can be helpful to all of the people who reach out to us for help, and we mean every word we say,” said Rabbi Sameth. “I know we are all grateful for the training we received in seminary – more and more seminaries these days are providing training in what's called pastoral counseling and crisis counseling. And then we go home and we too cry.”