Four days after the December 12 National Vigil for Gun Violence Victims in Washington, DC, conducted in remembrance of all lost to or affected by gun violence, Newtown Foundation spokesperson Dave Ackert was still emotionally moved by the event.
Two buses sponsored by the Newtown Foundation left from Newtown early Wednesday morning, December 11, carrying 90 people. An additional bus followed, populated by clergy from Newtown and Hartford. More than 100 other people from across the nation met up with the Newtown area contingent that afternoon, and two days of volunteerism and acts of kindness began. The actions preceded a late afternoon vigil held at the National Cathedral in Washington, DC, on Thursday.
“There were a couple of things that took place on Wednesday after we arrived,” Mr Ackert said. First was a press conference, arranged to provide an opportunity for people who would not be able to speak at the Thursday vigil. Among those who addressed the media were family members of victims of gun violence from across the nation, said Mr Ackert, as well as Gun Violence Prevention House Committee member Mike Thompson, and Connecticut representatives, Senators Richard Blumenthal and Chris Murphy, and Representative Elizabeth Esty.
“There was no way everyone could speak at the vigil, so this was a way for those to speak who otherwise wouldn’t have the chance,” Mr Ackert said.
Volunteers then spread out across the nation’s capital to schools and organizations, offering assistance and even bringing a workshop on Ben’s Bells to an after-school program. Many volunteers delivered “Remember Newtown” holiday cards and invitations to the National Vigil to every elected national official.
“That was a huge effort,” Mr Ackert said, and he was disappointed that so few elected officials did attend. “This was not the first time they were invited,” he said.
There were many moments that brought him to tears over the two days, said Mr Ackert, a reaction he observed was not uncommon.
“But I think the thing that made me cry, first, was being at the Savoy Elementary School. We thought we’d be there sorting donated books into reading levels. Then these cute little kids, from kindergarten through fourth grade, took each of us by our hands and walked us down the hall to the cafeteria, where they put on a Christmas show for us, under a big Sandy Hook sign. They were honoring Sandy Hook, not just for what happened [12/14], but for what we gave to them. It so amplified,” he said, “the old adage that you always get back more than what you give.”
Mr Ackert credits Newtown Congregational Church Senior Pastor Matt Crebbin as being “the hub in the wheel that turned to make [the National Vigil for Gun Violence Victims] happen. He worked with the clergy at the National Cathedral to design the program that was all-inclusive and that honored all,” he said.
Among the 1,000 people at the National Vigil on Thursday afternoon, Mr Ackert said he was pleasantly surprised to see still more Newtown residents in attendance.
The Reverend Mel Kawakami of Newtown United Methodist Church joined Dr Rajwant Sing and Rabbi Steve Guton in the Call to Prayer, as the vigil began. Speakers included immediate family members of loved ones lost to gun violence; the Reverend Sam Saylor of Blackwell Memorial AME Zion Church in Hartford; survivors of gun violence; and the Honorable Eleanor Holmes Norton, US Representative to Washington, DC.
Leading conversations with young people impacted by gun violence was Trinity Episcopal Church minister, the Reverend Kathleen Adams-Shepherd.
Music And Candlelight
Vigil organizers were pleased to welcome Grammy Award-winner Carole King to take part in the program. Ms King, known for the dozens of hit songs she penned, beginning with her ex-husband Gerry Goffin in the 1960s, performed “In The Name Of Love,” a song she wrote even before the 1971 hit “Tapestry.”
“The lyrics were perfect, and she was so gracious,” commented Mr Ackert.
Jim Allyn, Newtown musician and director of the Newtown Youth Voices, attended, listening as the World Children’s Choir from Virginia performed his original piece, “My Beautiful Town.”
“Hearing that song about our town, in that amazing building, was powerful and moving,” recalled Mr Ackert. “I don’t know if I can put my finger on any one moment. But I came to realize how vast this problem [of gun violence] is, and how many are mourning and are anguished all over the country, just like in our town. We’ve become aware that it is a much bigger problem than just Newtown. Everybody realizes we’re crying the same tears, regardless of where we live or what our backgrounds are,” he said.
Tears came again, especially for those from Newtown, when Newtown High School students Sarah Clements and Tess Murray stepped forward to light candles, as the Children’s Choir sang.
“Those candles,” he said, “were used to then light everyone’s candles. It was so moving to see Newtown start lighting candles for people from all over the country. All of our efforts were literally lit up and we were carrying out the light,” Mr Ackert said.
“For me,” said Rev Crebbin, “what was so striking were all the connections that were present in that gathering. There were multitudes of faiths and people from all kinds of different places, from suburbs to inner cities. We talk about ways in which we are different, but we recognized our common connection because of gun violence.”
It was powerful to see people coming together to remember loved ones and to make a difference in reducing gun violence, all in one place, Rev Crebbin said. Coming up on the anniversary of 12/14 at the National Vigil, he said, he found it powerful, too, that as Newtown remembered those lost last December “to recognize how other communities and people have been affected by gun violence and loss,” he said.
One of the ways in which people respond to awful circumstances, said Rev Crebbin, is to either turn inward or turn outward, and recognize that “we are not alone. I hope that for all we’ve experienced in Newtown that we are not turning inward, but turning outward, building bridges, and trying to make a difference.”
Reaching Toward Goals
Newtown Foundation had two main goals in hosting the National Vigil for Gun Violence Victims, said Mr Ackert.
“First, to continue to join with people from all over the country in mourning the losses of loved ones, and working together to make change. In that, I think we were successful. It was amazing to see people who have never met before becoming so close in just two days,” he said.
Secondly, the organization hoped to illustrate to people who are not so close to the 12/14 tragedy that what happened in Sandy Hook is happening everywhere else.
“We have seen a lot of news coverage from around the world and social media discussions about the vigil, so I feel we were pretty successful here, as well,” Mr Ackert said.
It has become evident to those involved in the Newtown Foundation that changes in gun culture will come from local and state levels, and not from the national level, he said.
“I’m frustrated with the narrative of the national media. Nobody reports that tougher gun regulations now apply to 50 percent of the population, since 12/14. We hear about Colorado [recalling senators and testing the legality of tougher gun regulations], but we don’t hear how on December 14 an attempt to recall four lawmakers in Rhode Island [who supported gun regulations] failed miserably. There has been a lot of positive action on gun safety programs,” said Mr Ackert.
He sees the nation taking hold of the kindness Newtown has put into action, and practicing it each day. “The more that love is practiced, love wins more frequently, and people will learn to solve problems with love, not weapons,” he asserted.
Newtown Foundation and its sister organization Newtown Action Alliance are not standing still as Newtown moves past the first anniversary of 12/14.
“We’re going to be adding to the groundswell of regular, authentic people, and maybe turn the tide on this [epidemic of gun violence],” he said.
The Newtown Foundation is an organization formed in response to 12/14, and is dedicated to educational, healing, and other programs promoting cultural change.