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Year In Review: A Year Of Grace And Growth For Religious Communities

Published: January 2, 2016

Shannon Hicks

    Residents worshipped together during a number of special events this year. They also met, and said farewell, to some of the town’s clergy.

    Although he had been working with the youth of Newtown United Methodist Church since summer 2014, it was not until January that Newtown Bee readers were introduced to Brandon Fox.

    A part-time addition to the NUMC staff, Mr Fox is pursuing his bachelor’s degree in music at Western Connecticut State University, with a voice concentration. He will need to earn a master’s degree before he can become ordained, and his schedule at the church in Sandy Hook is allowing him to work with the staff there, while continuing his studies.

    Newtown Bee readers were also introduced to the Reverend Caroline Hamilton-Arnold, the newest member of the staff at Newtown Congregational Church. Rev Hamilton-Arnold began serving as the church’s transitional minister in September 2014. In June, the 25-year-old was formally installed in the church.

    Before the end of the year, however, Rev Hamilton-Arnold’s plans changed. While she was initially planning to remain with NCC until June 2016, Rev Hamilton-Arnold was offered an opportunity she could not pass up. She will shortly begin as associate director of Week of Compassion, the disaster relief, refugee resettlement, and development mission fund of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). She offered her final sermon, “A Message of Recognition,” at Newtown Congregational Church on December 27.

    The town’s longest-running carnival returned to St Rose of Lima Parish Grounds in June. The event, which had been planned for June 23-27, had to be cancelled at least once — on opening night — due to weather, but parishioners and residents from across the region made up for that lost time on subsequent nights.

    In July, the church hosted Christmas in July, a boutique sale that offered discounted prices on new items that were unsold from previous Christmas boutiques. Then over the weekend of December 3-6, St Rose presented one of the town’s largest annual Christmas shopping events. The “You Can Never Have Enough Christmas” Boutique returned to the church hall that weekend, offering plenty of new Santas, angels, religious items, jewelry, and much more.

    The town’s Catholic church also presented its Living Nativity, the special offering of the reenactment of the arrival of Jesus, in a church stable on church grounds December 12.

    Faith at Newtown also offered its first Living Nativity in December, adding its presentation to the special offerings during the Sandy Hook Tree Lighting celebration on December 5.

    Vacation Bible School (VBS) events were again celebrated during the summer months. Faith at Newtown returned to the gymnasium at Edmond Town Hall for its annual program, which was open to anyone interested in joining the fun, free of charge. For five days, church leaders are joined by young adults to present programs for children entering kindergarten through grade 6. “Big Apple Adventure,” which was offered July 20-24, included team competitions, Bible stories, games, crafts, singing and more, all with a New York City theme.

    Grace Family Church welcomed 151 children to its VBS program, offered August 10-14 at the 174 Mt Pleasant Road church. The 2015 theme celebrated “how God created everything, and how what God teaches us can be partnered with what science tells us,” explained GFC Children & Youth Pastor Adam Fredericks. The event offered lessons and games, and crafts for ages 4-12.

    VBS culminated on Friday with a picnic lunch, where families were invited to join together with VBS leaders for a final celebration of the lessons learned during the week.

    Newtown Interfaith Clergy Association hosted a number of public events this past year, beginning with an Interfaith Seder. Guided by Rabbi Shaul Praver, this year’s event, which has been rotating among the town’s houses of worship in recent years, was hosted by Newtown Congregational Church, on March 29, which was also Palm Sunday. A few dozen people joined the town’s religious leaders for the event, which focused on the traditional aspects of Passover, but also snuck a few laughs in among the readings and lessons.

    In November it was Newtown United Methodist Church’s turn to host the Interfaith Thanksgiving Gathering. The November 22 service was attended by approximately 45 people who enjoyed just over an hour of prayers, music, texts, and readings from myriad faiths, and an offering that benefited FAITH Food Pantry.

    Many of the town’s religious leaders participated in the Sunday evening gathering, offering words of strength and support, encouragement and friendship. Laughter broke up the solemnity a number of times, adding levity to the 70-minute event.

    The clergy association’s final gathering of the year was on Monday, December 14, when the group hosted an event at Trinity Episcopal Church to mark the third anniversary of 12/14.

    Rain and passing fog did not deter those seeking to remember the lives lost at Sandy Hook School three years earlier. An ascending bell note on the organ accompanied the reading of each of the names of the 26 victims of 12/14, read by the Reverend Kathleen Adams-Shepherd, pastor of the host church. The 60-minute event offered support and comfort to those gathered together.

    The Newtown unit of Church Women United also remained active in 2015, presenting three public programs.

    A small group of women and men gathered in the Nunnawauk Meadows Community Building on March 7 for the unit’s first public event, a Human Rights Celebration. While small in number, those in attendance appeared to enjoy celebrating the afternoon’s theme, “Journey Toward Peace.”

    They also honored the late Jeanette Mayer, who had been invited to keynote that Saturday afternoon, but died unexpectedly nine days earlier. In place of Mrs Mayer, Elizabeth Ricci spoke about her friend and longtime CWU member. Darlene Jackson, the president of CWU/Newtown-Danbury, said that Mrs Mayer had been selected to be honored that Saturday in part because “all of her life she was very concerned with human rights.” In honor of Mrs Mayer, attendees had been encouraged to bring plenty of pennies for the celebration’s Fellowship of the Least Coin offering.

    Two months later, CWU-Newtown welcomed Beverly Ruekberg, MPH, MA Ed, president and geriatric care manager of Home Care Advantage in Danbury, and Peter Ruekberg, the director of operations for Home Care Advantage for May Friendship Day. Presented at C.H. Booth Library, that event celebrated nurses, aides, and other caregivers with a program called “Journey of The Caregiver.”

    Members of the local unit helped to present the program, which included a welcome from Mrs Jackson, prayers, a call to worship, and scripture readings. But it was Ms Ruekberg’s presentation that was the core of the morning program. With a series of short videos queued by her husband, Ms Ruekberg shared stories of caregivers and their work. She encouraged those in attendance, when they need to serve as a caregiver to a loved one, to remember to take care of themselves while doing what they can for others who are ill.

    On November 6, the local CWU unit hosted its annual World Community Day celebration. Presented in The Great Room of Newtown Congregational Church, the program loosely followed the international 2015 celebration theme of “Our Journey Together.” It was the first of three programs in town that month that looked at the refugees crisis.

    For CWU’s event, Chris George, the executive director of Integrated Refugee and Immigrant Services (IRIS), based in New Haven, led a conversation about refugees , displacement, and what local residents can do to help those who are arriving in the United States, particularly Connecticut.