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BETHEL — In the grueling hours and days following 12/14, Walnut Hill Community Church (WHCC) Pastor Brian Mowrey said his congregation committed to doing anything possible to help its Newtown neighbors as they began grappling with the horror and taking their first tentative steps toward recovery.
Since then, the Bethel church — one of four WHCC congregations in western Connecticut — has been a host to recovery activities, professional response training sessions, even a private concert by renowned singer/songwriter James Taylor. But perhaps one of the most far-reaching and enduring relationships that was formed following the shooting at Sandy Hook School was the welcoming by WHCC of NewArts.
That local nonprofit, founded by Newtown resident and surgeon Michael Baroody, MD, was introduced to the WHCC leadership around the time the resiliency building organization that uses theater and creative expression among its tools to promote healing learned that its program that launched at Newtown High School in 2013 would not be able to continue there during a protracted auditorium renovation project.
Since then the organization and its stellar theater, which also serves as its congregation’s worship venue, has provided NewArts with a place to not only stage four summer musicals, but a renewed run of A Christmas Carol, which was previously staged for 18 years by Director Michael Unger at the McCarter Theatre in Princeton, N.J.
The church has also gone as far as to provide spaces for set, prop, and costume storage, set construction, rehearsals, and breakout classrooms for NewArts innovative ARC (Aspire, Reach, Confidence) program, as well as jiggering its worship schedule and a number of other functional activities around the theater group’s productions.
Sitting to talk about it with The Newtown Bee one recent afternoon, however, all parties involved describe the growing relationship and the collaboration between NewArts and WHCC as a perfect fit — perhaps even guided into existence by a combination of earthly connections and a greater power.
“The bottom line is, Walnut Hill Community Church came through for NewArts when we needed it most,” Dr Baroody said. “Walnut Hill already had a number of NewArts participants in its congregation and helped Newtown greatly after the tragedy by hosting different activities, so we were already well aware of their presence. And I feel like they helped more than anyone else.”
“It worked really nice for us,” Pastor Mowrey said. “We were always a church community that loved to do plays and musical events. We’re a church that really has a vision for the arts, and it seemed like a perfect match. We actually did A Christmas Carol before the NewArts production came here, and we really upgraded with NewArts.”
“It’s one thing to say you want to help, and to encourage an organization to keep doing what they’re doing,” Dr Baroody said. “And it’s another to actually open your doors and incur substantial expense and sacrifice to do it.
“They actually rearranged their schedule, there’s cost to everything … there’s no words to explain the generosity of this church and how much they have helped this organization, and the difference they are making in these kids’ lives,” he added.
“The beautiful thing for us is that the partnership with NewArts has allowed us to open out doors to the entire Newtown community, and helping people in the community. It’s a beautiful partnership,” Pastor Mowrey said. “We’re already one of the biggest churches in the area, but we’ve had a number of Newtown residents start to come here after they experienced what we’re doing with NewArts.
“In talking with their parents, we’re hearing the kids’ involvement with NewArts is an environment where they can grow in their maturity — handling great joys as well as challenges. Our world is a tough one to live in, and we see these NewArts kids as champions who can face life’s challenges, opportunities, and as we’ve seen, real hardship through the program,” the church leader added.
Mr Unger said the move from Newtown High School to Walnut Hill Community Church was an easy transition.
“From day one it was incredibly welcoming and easy. The facilities are spectacular, fly space, lighting sound, their equipment, sound, a projection system. I think we walked into the best system we could have bar none,” the NewArts director said. “The summer productions have been successful and the opening of our Christmas Carol last year was incredibly successful. But the bones of this theater are fantastic.”
Not that the million-dollar Broadway-caliber sets and other components from Mr Unger’s McCarter production haven’t helped. A few Walnut Hill Christmas Carol veterans also joined the NewArts circle last year.
“And we’d like to have, and hope to have more each year, as this relationship continues,” Mr Unger added.
Ten performances of A Christmas Carol will be staged at Walnut Hill Community Church, November 30-December 10. A preview of the show will be offered in this space next week, but tickets are already available for purchase.