Interfaith Council Welcomes Special Guests In New Leadership Positions
Newtown Interfaith Council returned to a hybrid format for its September meeting, when members also welcomed two special guests.
Superintendent of Schools Chris Melillo and Newtown Police Department Sergeant William Chapman joined representatives from six communities of faith at Trinity Episcopal Church on September 20.
Reverend Andrea Castner Wyatt hosted the meeting at her church, with Steve Bamberg (Congregation Adath Israel), Eman Beshtawii (Al Hedaya Islamic Center), Reverend Matt Crebbin (Newtown Congregational), Bill Donaldson (Love Has A Home Here), and Lori Miller (Newtown United Methodist Church) joining her in person.
Christ the King Lutheran Church Pastor Rob Morris also joined the meeting via Zoom.
Chapman spoke first, introducing himself and his new post within the local police department to the group. Chapman was promoted to a Newtown Police Department Sergeant in August. At the same time he was also appointed lead of the department’s new Community Services Division.
The division’s area of coverage includes work done by School Resource Officers, traffic concerns, and public event planning.
While introducing himself to the interfaith council a few weeks ago, Chapman told them about the approaching National Faith & Blue Weekend, observed this year October 7-10.
“It’s a police community togetherness campaign,” he said. “It’s not a festival event, but an acknowledgement of the diversity among faith communities, and the country.”
Chapman offered to visit local communities not only during the noted weekend but well beyond. He said he and fellow police officers are available to meet with leaders of the faith communities to plan events, and are happy to participate in events.
“Don’t hesitate to reach out,” he said. “We’re happy to help any way we can. If you’re doing a [special] collection and if a PD visit and address would help, just reach out.
“We’re happy to speak on and address safety needs,” he added. “We know the synagogue has a busy time coming up, so we’ll be more visible for them.”
Crebbin complimented Newtown PD for being “proactive in mental health services, and social services and their responses.”
Chapman said the interfaith council “sets a good example.
“There are communities where there is competition” between communities of faith, he added. “When you support each other and speak well of each other, it really sets a good example.”
Chris Melillo introduced himself next.
Melillo was hired by the Board of Education in May, to take over the position of retiring superintendent Dr Lorrie Rodrigue. His position took effect July 1.
Melillo told the council that he is in his 30th year working in the education field. Family is very important to him, he said. He had been approached with offers to become a superintendent twice before, he said, but purposely waited until his sons were in the mid- and late teenage years before moving into the position.
“It’s a good time in my life to dive into this work,” he said.
“I’m a pretty level-headed person,” he continued. “I love the kids. I have a hands-on approach to education and leadership, so you won’t find me in my office too much. It’s all about positive outcomes for the kids.”
Having served previously as the assistant superintendent of Hamden Public Schools, Melillo said in September that Newtown “feels like a small town by comparison.”
He has found the town to be “a very welcoming community,” he continued.
The superintendent and council members discussed the approaching tenth anniversary of 12/14, and how it would be observed in schools and faith communities this year. Crebbin told Melillo that he and the others were thankful for the visit from the new superintendent.
“We wanted to make sure we were communicating and working together,” Crebbin said. The council and school system, the pastor continued, has tried to continue an open conversation around the annual observance of what happened nearly ten years ago.
“We are aware that we’re coming up on the tenth anniversary,” Crebbin said. “We’ve always been involved with the community and school staff on certain levels.
“Many of us have already gotten some calls,” he continued. “These anniversaries are always difficult, but these things, when they hit five years, or ten years, there is a tension that is different. We thought it was important to have this conversation, to be proactive on this, before it is upon us.”
Donaldson introduced the subject of faith in schools.
“There isn’t direct access to faith leaders,” he said.
Crebbin said he and the others realize “there’s a line to be treaded around with school and faith, and the instinct is to go to counselors — which is not a bad thing — but we’d like to let students know we’re available.”
In response to a suggestion that local communities of faith be included in available resources, Melillo seemed agreeable.
“You can still have separation of church and state and still offer a service,” he said.
Melillo said he knows there are a few things happening and approaching that will be traumatic. The ongoing trial of conspiracy theorist and radio host Alex Jones, and the November dedication of the Sandy Hook Memorial — both coming on the heels of a school shooting in Uvalde, Texas — were all concerning to him.
“I’m not seeing a lot, yet, but I’m positive there is some internal grief going on,” he said. “I think you’re spot on with making sure we let people know you’re available.”
‘The Value Of A Diverse Community’
Eman Beshtawii spoke to the new superintendent next. She and her family, and others in the Al Hedaya community, she said, do not always feel welcomed in the local schools.
“I hope this year will be better for our kids,” she said.
Newtown’s general community is welcoming, she said.
“Newtown can be very welcoming,” she said. “Most people are very nice. The police department is also supportive. The school is the only place we don’t feel welcome.”
Beshtawii and others from the Islamic community have been invited to speak and participate in events in Danbury and other locations, she said.
“We met our teachers, and our brothers and sisters in Danbury, and every one of us has told the audience about our stories,” she said, adding “I was able to talk there without fear.”
Beshtawii has heard, she said, about bullying and disrespect not only between students but also teachers toward students.
Islamic students do not feel comfortable wearing traditional clothing, she said.
“This is the only district where we don’t see hajib in schools,” she said. “It’s a choice. They should be comfortable, but they aren’t. They will wear one when they are out of school in Newtown, but not in.”
“The holidays are coming, and we hear all about Christmas and Hanukkah,” she also said. “I want to see things about Eid. Eid is a very important day for us.”
Melillo listened to Beshtawii’s concerns, and acknowledged what she said.
“I hear you. I worked in a very diverse district, where Eid, Rosh Hashanah, and Three Kings Day were all observed, as were Christian holidays,” he said. “One of my goals is curriculum expansion.”
Beshtawii was very pleased, she said, to hear that Melillo had worked in a school system where children had space set aside for their prayers. Faculty in one of Melillo’s previous posts understood, he said, how fasting during religious observances was going to affect students.
“They understood they should not assign homework on such evenings, and not to be harsh when students were sluggish during the days,” he said.
Melillo is hoping for enrichment activities that will allow students to learn about their differences, and how they should bring people together, not push them apart, he said.
He did caution the council too, saying, “a lot of this work has been politicized, which makes it more difficult for educators to become and remain committed.”
He looks forward to working with the town’s faith leaders, he said.
“I’m not opposed to bringing in all of you, and others, to make this happen,” he told them. “Students should learn to be tolerant and inclusive of all. They will be working in diverse communities. Without that, our kids leave us at a disadvantage if they have to learn this in the work force.
“I understand the value of a diverse community,” he assured the council.
“Our schools should be a place for all students, and students should all feel welcome there,” he said. “I challenge anyone to debate that tenet.”
When asked about the bright spots he has found in his new position, Melillo smiled easily.
“The fun part is, if I have a tough day I go find a kindergarten class and watch the kids,” he said. “That’s a joy. I get to watch kids play games. That, and knowing that the end game for all of us is helping all kids reach their potential.”
In concluding the hour-plus meeting, Wyatt reiterated the council’s welcome to Melillo (Chapman had already returned to duty).
“We are all available at any time,” she said. “Just let us know how we can help.”
Managing Editor Shannon Hicks can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.