By Paul Boatman
This interview took place on December 27, 13 days after a gunman in Newtown, Connecticut, killed 20 first-graders and six staff members at Sandy Hook Elementary School, before killing himself. Jack Tanner was part of the “first response” clergy team called upon to help the parents of the children. Jack serves as preaching minister with Newtown Christian Church.
Jack, our hearts go out to those of you in Newtown. Can you walk us through your experience with this tragedy?
I was busy with routine work in my office [that Friday] when I got a call from the secretary of another church asking me to join other clergy at a fire station where children were being brought to meet their parents. We had heard that only two children and an adult had been taken to the hospital after a shooting incident at Sandy Hook school. When I got to within a quarter-mile of the station, congestion was so bad I parked and walked toward the station. In that short distance, I had to go through five checkpoints where identification was demanded. I began to realize this was more serious than we had heard. By noon, when I arrived at the station, most of the children had been reunited with their parents, but there were more parents waiting for children who were not coming.
What was the atmosphere in the room?
You could feel the anxiety. Parents were clinging to hope, even when it was becoming apparent there was very little hope that their children would be coming. We tried to console. Most did not want to talk, but they were open to prayer and an arm on a shoulder. We just tried to “be there” for them as they sat silently.
Who was there to help?
About 10 or 12 pastors were there with the Connecticut State Police and Governor [Dan] Malloy. The governor addressed the group, saying they were trying to get information. A trooper was assigned to each set of parents to get information on the children who were “not yet accounted for.” The governor promised to give a progress report each hour. It seemed the parents did not sense what was developing.
It sounds like tension was escalating.
It certainly was. By 3 p.m., parents were feeling that information was being held back. They knew only that their children were not accounted for. They asked about the people [two children and an adult] reportedly taken to the hospital. The governor acknowledged that the two children were dead. Gasps sounded and tears flowed. Parents kept pleading for more information on the other children. The governor paused and carefully stated, “They are no longer alive.” The room filled with sobs and gut-wrenching shrieks. Some parents had hoped, “Maybe my child is OK.” At that moment it seemed every bit of hope was sucked out of the room. We pastors wished we had words to say. We looked at each other and turned to try to console the parents as best we could. As time passed, the parents asked, “Are we just being kept here to identify bodies?” Troopers began to take families home until they could be called in to identify their children. Clergy left as the families left. I understand it was about 3 a.m. before all [the victims] were identified.
What unfolded on Saturday?
Numbness set in. Another school building was used for counseling. I was there by 8 a.m., with some of my ministry colleagues. We were joined by volunteers from around the state. We waited until we were called with a request, such as, “We have a family with a child whose best friend was killed.” They just needed to talk. The people who came were mainly friends and neighbors, not the people with the immediate loss. That afternoon the clergy met to plan a community service for Sunday evening. This service was primarily for the community, so we agreed to have only prayers, silence, and Scripture. No talking, no sermons. After we had planned the service, we got the call from the White House, asking whether President Obama could come participate. It was our decision, but the request helped us [grasp] how the nation was reacting to this. If the president needed to speak to the nation, we decided that including him would be the right thing to do. So the president, governor, and first selectwoman [mayor] each took part.
We watched the service and wept from afar. How did you feel about it?
I feel that the service went positively. The most important thing for us was that we prayed for our community and came together in looking to our faith in God. All faith communities were together on this.
Where did ministry go after that?
On Monday, the ministry became more personal. Funerals and wakes began. On Tuesday, clergy got together and reflected on our own emotional states. We had different levels of closeness to families. No children from our church were killed, but I helped some of the other ministers—[we] helped each other with the urgent situations, people stopping by. All the churches were open for people to stop in. We assisted, connected, and supported one another where we could.
We scheduled another community service for 9:30 a.m. exactly two weeks after the attack to help the community grieve as a community. Everyone involved needs to see grief as a long process and realize the need to place hope in the ongoing work of God.
You are using the term community with great frequency.
The community has been amazing. We really have come together; 27,000 people are connected in loss and really joining in helping one another.
I don’t hear you talking about a sense of rage.
Community leaders at all levels have chosen to focus on the immediate concerns and not engage the political issues—gun control, mental illness issues, etc. We know there will be a time for expressing rage and dealing with political implications, but this is not the time. Angry outcries will come, but right now the hurt is where we are joined. Everybody in town felt the assault; everything we do is impacted by this. For example, my son just got married this past Sunday, just nine days after the murders. One of the groomsmen lost a niece. My son considered canceling the ceremony. They had the wedding, but the undertone of grief was present. We are emotionally tied to the persons in this story.
Can you say more about the role of faith in the process?
From my perspective, prayer is the main expression of faith shown. First, I have asked people to pray for the parents—not just simple “God bless everybody” prayers. I saw the power of despair in those parents. Second, I have asked for prayer for the people who are helping. In the midst of helping people, I have experienced an overwhelming feeling that “I just can’t go on,” [followed by] an inner peace and a surge of energy. I was sure someone was praying for me. My fellow ministers described the same thing. Personally, as pastors, we felt the power.
I have not heard townspeople asking, “Where was God?” or “Why did he not stop this?” What I have heard is, “Church is where we need to be!”
What have you learned about yourself?
There is no way I could make it through this without the help of God. Also, one [only] thinks he is prepared for the worst. I have had some really difficult moments before, but nothing could get me ready for this. Also, I need to ask people to pray for me. I may have been too reliant on myself. I’m asking others to join me in asking for God’s help.
How has this community changed?
Well, it has not been torn apart. I believe we will be more sensitive to each other. Priorities are clarified in the face of this tragedy.
What is the role of forgiveness? Adam Lanza [the gunman] did a very evil thing.
In planning our Sunday night memorial, we talked about candles for each person killed. We discussed a candle for the killer. I suggested that this is not the time to expect everybody to accept that. Two days after ghastly murders is too early to hammer a grieving parent with the need to forgive. That’s a complicated issue to deal with later.
We wish we could help you more.
I have been overwhelmed at the efforts of many to help. I’ve had two or three people helping [just to keep up with] my own e-mails. Our town has received so many teddy bears we have no room for any more. People are sending them because of their desire to do something, anything, but we are overwhelmed by memorials and gifts from all over the country. I know people are meaning well, and we can indeed sense the sincerity of people’s hearts, but perhaps more thought can be given to how we could best help those close to the tragedy. There are memorial Christmas trees around town for the children, and people leave mementos to let people know they are praying for them. The trees are covered with gifts and remembrances.
Do you have a word from God for us?
My cousin Tom sent a message, “We mourn Newtown as Rachel weeps for her children” (Jeremiah 31:15 and Matthew 2:18). That speaks to me. People I know and love are suffering beyond imagination. I hurt for pains too deep for words
Paul Boatman serves as chaplain with Safe Haven Hospice in Lincoln, Illinois.