Interfaith Council Welcomes Rosenthal For October Meeting, Begins Planning Two Annual Events
Ahead of the opening this month of The Sandy Hook Permanent Memorial, Newtown Interfaith Council (NIC) members welcomed First Selectman Dan Rosenthal to their latest meeting. Rosenthal spent well over an hour with representatives of local communities of faith, answering questions about the memorial, and assuring those present that they are a comfort to many in town.
The October 25 meeting was in person, with seven council members gathering at Trinity Church.
The meeting opened with discussion about the Sandy Hook Permanent Memorial. NIC members had joined with the first selectman a week earlier for a private tour of the Riverside Road property, where they had been given time to view the memorial before it opens.
The memorial, the first selectman said, will open on a Sunday morning in mid-November. There are no formal events planned around that.
“We will open the gate, and the memorial will then be open,” Rosenthal said. He answered questions about security, gatherings, and logistics.
In response to a question from council members, Rosenthal also said there would be no Town-sanctioned events to note the tenth anniversary of 12/14. Schools will not be in session, he said, but staff will be on-site.
“The only additional thing now is the memorial is in place — or it will be by then — for those who want to go there,” he said.
“The fact we have that place now is important. I’m pleased there was a consensus among families, at least overall,” on the memorial’s design, he added.
Council members are planning to offer an interfaith gathering on December 14, as they have done annually since the shootings at Sandy Hook School. Newtown Congregational Church Senior Pastor Matt Crebbin thanked Rosenthal for attending the meeting. Both men noted the approaching anniversary, and heightened feelings around the 10-year mark. Rosenthal said media and general inquiries are being directed to MySandyHookFamilies.com.
“That continues to be monitored and maintained by the families of those killed on 12/14,” the first selectman said. “It’s where each family has the opportunity to do and share what they want.”
Crebbin told Rosenthal he and the others wanted to work with Rosenthal and the Town, if there was anything to be done next month.
“We wanted to coordinate with you, or at least not be in the way of anything the town is doing this year,” Crebbin said. He discussed “the delicate balance of challenge between offering something that people may not attend versus the fear by loved ones that their family members will be forgotten.”
The council has long realized that their memorial gatherings may not always draw large crowds, Crebbin said. It is nevertheless important, he added, with others nodding in agreement, to offer comfort to anyone who wants to be with others at that time.
“We’ve learned from communities that if we change things, we’ll hear from people expecting the same,” he said. “It becomes something of tradition.”
He used the Columbine community as an example.
“They cancelled school on the first anniversary” of the school shootings there, Crebbin said. “They heard pushback when they thought about not cancelling it later,” he added.
Newtown United Methodist Church Pastor Lori Miller agreed, saying there is often “a visceral response to change, even after just a few years.”
December 14 Gathering
For that reason, this year’s gathering will again be open to the community.
“We will share traditions of our faith, name each victim, and light candles,” Crebbin said.
The gathering will again be at Trinity Episcopal Church, 36 Main Street. It will begin at 7 pm.
“It’s a really moving experience to be there,” said The Reverend Andrea Kastner Wyatt, rector of Trinity Church.
Crebbin and others have reached out to families of those killed on 12/14 over the years, he said. Not everyone responds, and fewer attend the interfaith gatherings.
Leo McIlrath, the ecumenical chaplain for The Lutheran Home in Southbury, asked if families are still being contacted. Crebbin said the first selectman’s office usually takes care of sending a letter to the families to let them know of the interfaith event being planned, along with the reiteration that local faith leaders are always available.
“There is an awareness of our availability if any family wants to do something private, without any attention drawn to them,” Crebbin said. “Most families did not take us up on that. Most already had support systems in place.”
Steve Bamberg, representing Congregation Adath Israel, said one of his friends is the parent of one of the children killed on 12/14.
“They cannot be in town that day,” Bamberg said. “It’s too much for them.”
“For the families,” he said, “every day is brutal. The period between the start of the school year and each December 14 is particularly hard. We’ve always encouraged ‘whatever brings you peace and comfort is what you should do.’
“It’s generally accepted at this point that there will be an interfaith service, and St Rose will have Mass that night,” Rosenthal said. “What you’ve done so far has worked well.”
In response to an offer by Kastner Wyatt to let the council know if there is anything else they can do, Rosenthal thanked her.
“People have relied heavily on their faith communities, including the past two years with streaming services due to the pandemic,” he said. “I am grateful for the offer. I know I can call on any of you.”
The group then turned its focus toward the community, and the level of anger that many feel is pervasive.
“Outside of 12/14, I think one of the things that concerns me is we’re supposed to be such a connected society, but with social media there’s a lot of disconnect,” Rosenthal said. “My fear is you see people not liking each other on Facebook. Public discourse has been reduced to that.
“If you disagree with someone, you just unfriend them online,” the first selectman said.
Al Hedaya Islamic Center Founder Eman Beshtawii said anger is prevalent online.
“People are nice in person, in the store,” she said, “but when you go to social media there are a few loud ones and it’s like that’s the whole town.”
“We’ve reached a point where people think everyone wants to hear everything we think,” Rosenthal said. “It starts to permeate our lives. Sometimes it gets to a point where it’s time to just be quiet. It’s just like what we’ve all been taught: ‘If you don’t have something nice to say…’”
Reference was made to a series being presented at Booth Library. Fellow NIC member John Woodall, who was unable to attend the October meeting, launched a series of 21st Century Conversations during the summer months. Love Has A Home Here Founder Bill Donaldson mentioned that series to Rosenthal, adding that the second round of programs would be beginning this month.
“This topic of social discourse, is it something we can assist with?” Kastner Wyatt asked.
The discussion then turned toward volunteerism in town, and the similarities between serving the town and a community of faith.
“There are a lot of challenges to running a town. I regularly receive Town texts saying ‘The First Selectman is looking for folks to serve on a board,’” said Crebbin.
Kastner Wyatt chuckled, saying, “That sounds familiar.”
“Yes,” said Crebbin. “A lot of people in church who volunteer there are often the same ones who are busy elsewhere, including Town boards. All older members have served on vast boards. That was their social network for years. Even when they were younger, they volunteered, in part because it was their civic duty and their social network. The idea of making a difference was different then.
“At the local level, volunteering with the Town is all about problem-solving,” he continued. “It’s about solving issues that are presented to you.”
Rosenthal said that was correct.
“That’s what keeps us afloat,” he said. “The lifeblood of this town is volunteerism. When you see social media it’s hard to volunteer for a Town board or committee. You want people to step forward and serve the community, but people are dealing with things they’ve never had to before.”
Miller said she thinks a lot of people, “during COVID, hibernated and haven’t come out yet.”
Beshtawii said former President Trump made an unfortunate difference in the nation’s tone.
“The way he talked to people, he laid down so much negative stuff,” she said. “It’s very dangerous, but unfortunately it exists, this anger and disrespect for others.”
Rosenthal pointed out that “the seeds for some of this behavior were there before COVID.”
The pandemic exacerbated a lot, however, he mentioned.
“People were mad about the lockdowns, and losing loved ones,” he said. “April and May 2020, everything closed. When everything reopened, you didn’t have to go back, and not everyone did. COVID anger is real, but it’s not an excuse.”
Crebbin recalled the Community Conversations conducted prior to the pandemic.
“There was a lot of talk about kindness, and it helped us a lot,” he said. “Now coming out of this global disaster, maybe there isn’t as much talk about intentional kindness. How do we intentionally talk about this? I don’t think there’s a wider cultural conversation yet to recognize that we’ve come through this.”
Fraying relationships and mental health challenges are lead concerns, Rosenthal said.
“The government can’t order people to be nicer, but guidance can be offered,” he said. “I feel we’ve lost our way on how to get along with each other. People are probably losing the ability to recognize different views and still move forward. Everyone feels so combative.”
“That’s where we’re at,” Kastner Wyatt said. “It’s very hard.”
McIlrath used that moment to move the discussion toward the council’s next annual offering.
“This lack of gratitude makes it difficult for many to move forward,” he said. “That’s my segue into ‘What are we doing for Thanksgiving?’”
It was decided that Newtown Congregational Church will host this year’s interfaith service, which will again be offered the Sunday before Thanksgiving.
The public is invited to join NIC members at 14 West Street for the service, which will begin at 7 pm.
There will be sacred texts and prayers, with the focus on “all the aspects of life and faith [and] the light that nurtures and transforms our lives and our world,” according to a note shared this week with The Newtown Bee. The theme will be “Thankful For The Light.”
Attendees will be asked to offer nonperishable food items or monetary donations to support FAITH Food Pantry.
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