Americans to remember Newtown at National Cathedral vigil

Editor's note: The Mirror will be looking this week at how Connecticut has reacted, and changed, in the year since the Sandy Hook shootings.

Washington -- High on a rise overlooking Washington, D.C., the National Cathedral is the nation’s spiritual heart -- the place, chosen by Congress, where Americans of all faiths have expressed some of their deepest sorrows.

What could be more fitting, then, as the site for a national remembrance of the victims of the shootings at Newtown’s Sandy Hook Elementary School and all victims of gun violence, an estimated 30,000 a year.?

As it did millions of others, the horrific killing of 20 first graders and six educators in the small suburban Connecticut town deeply affected the the cathedral's dean, the Very Rev. Gary Hall. So it was easy for him to agree to a request by the Newtown Action Alliance and The Newtown Foundation to hold a national vigil in the cathedral on Thursday, Dec. 12, the cusp of the anniversary of the Sandy Hook shootings.

“We reached out to him, and he had open arms,” said David Ackert, chairman of the Newtown Action Alliance and The Newtown Foundation.

The activists hope the event will allow Americans to express their sympathies for the victims while still giving the grieving town the privacy it wants. The intent is to focus the glare of national media coverage on the cathedral and first-of-its-kind vigil.

But even before he was asked, Hall had had Newtown on his mind. He viewed the terrible event as a national, if not worldwide, symbol of gun violence -- an issue he wants the nation to address.

“I want to attract public attention to Newtown because of the nature of the tragedy, which came at the end of a year where we had other shootings,” Hall said.

Right after the Newtown incident, the cathedral held a news conference with religious leaders to demand stricter gun laws. In February, the cathedral hosted a three-day Gun Violence Prevention Sabbath Weekend with Faiths United to Prevent Gun Violence.

Hall became dean of the cathedral last year and is known as an activist. He was the only cleric at a Capitol Hill news conference where Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., introduced a bill that would ban dozens of assault weapons -- including the one Adam Lanza used in his Newtown killing spree.

Preaching in a service two days after the tragedy, Hall said, “The gun lobby is no match for the cross lobby.”

But Hall said the vigil’s organizers “have been clear they don’t want this event to be about guns, but about remembrance.” 

Congress designated the Washington National Cathedral the "National House of Prayer" during World War II. But ever since former President Theodore Roosevelt laid the cornerstone for the cathedral in 1907, the building has hosted other major events, both religious and secular, that have drawn the attention of the American people. 

Besides holding state funerals for Ronald Reagan and Dwight D. Eisenhower, the cathedral has held memorial services for Richard Nixon and other former presidents and first ladies, including Eleanor Roosevelt.

President Obama and President Franklin D. Roosevelt were among the nation’s leaders who attended prayer services at the cathedral on their inauguration day. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was among notables who preached from the cathedral’s pulpit.

The vigil will also have its share of pomp, circumstance and celebrity.

Obama and Vice President Biden have been invited to the event, although Nelson Mandela's death and the plans to attend a memorial in South Africa have probably made it impossible for the president to attend. Carole King will perform, and the World’s Children Chorus will sing a song, composed by Newtown teacher Jim Allyn, called “My Beautiful Town.” 

Congressional leaders and other dignitaries plan to join about 100 Newtown residents and victims of gun violence across the nation, and television crews and other members of the media will crowd the cathedral. Others will be able to watch the ceremony streamed on the cathedral’s website.

Gun control groups are helping with the vigil. Mayors Against Illegal Guns, a group formed by former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, will pay for one of the buses that will carry Newtown residents to Washington. A member of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence will be among the speakers.

Some alliance members have come to Washington at least half a dozen times to press for gun control.

But Ackert said there will be no lobbying during this visit.

“This time we will perform acts of kindness,” he said, such as volunteering in churches and at an afterschool program for disadvantaged youth.

But it’s hard for anything that occurs in Washington to divorce itself from politics, no matter how much the vigil’s organizers say they want to do that.

Ackert said lawmakers have been invited to join Newtown residents in their volunteering. And alliance members have sent cards to members of Congress to mark the anniversary that say “remember Newtown.”

The involvement of gun control groups in the event, and the sermon by a gun-control activist, will also color the event, as will the possibility of a speech by Biden, who has made gun control a priority in the wake of the Newtown shooting.

In addition, alliance members and Hall will join House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., a congressional leader on gun control, at a press conference on Capitol Hill the day before the vigil.

Ackert said it is difficult for any event held in Washington to avoid being interpreted through a political prism.

“People would criticize us worse if we held [the vigil] in Newtown,” Ackert said. “They would accuse us of using dead children for political gain.”

Heidi Hadsell, the president of Hartford Seminary, said the memorial in “a public square” like the cathedral was not only right, but needed.

“Holding the vigil in public helps us see ourselves as whole, helps us get past the divisions and the fragmentation that happens when a tragedy like this occurs,” she said. “It provides healing for all of us.”

Hadsell also said she hoped the ceremony would be ecumenical and nondenominational.

“The families of the children who were killed were religiously diverse, and we are religiously diverse,” she said.

The memorial to victims of gun violence will have three parts. The first, called “remembrance,” will focus on family members of gun violence victims and their slain relatives. The second will focus on gun violence survivors who’ve become activists. The third will focus on children and young people who’ve been impacted by violence..

To Ackert, the National Cathedral is perfect for the vigil.

Gun violence "is a national crisis,” he said. “It’s a national health epidemic. There’s no more appropriate place than the National Cathedral.”

In addition, Ackert said the vigil will be “awesome and solemn” because of its setting. “The cathedral is the nation’s spiritual home,” he said.

Richard Slotkin, a cultural critic, historian and former professor at Wesleyan University in Connecticut who’s written about America’s relationship with guns, said the vigil planned at the cathedral is a natural outgrowth of the impact of the Newtown tragedy on the nation.

“I think the Sandy Hook shooting made an enormous impression on people for a number of reasons,” he said.

One is that it came after a series of mass shootings, including the ones at Virginia Tech, Aurora, Col., and Tucson, N.M., he said.

“And the circumstances were particularly horrible in that the victims were babies,” Slotkin said. “The worst thing you can call someone is ‘baby killer.’”

He also said “unfortunately” there is another reason Newtown is something people will have trouble forgetting -- the violence occurred in a white suburb.

“In the ghettos, the killing goes on and on, and people just kind of shrug it off,” Slotkin said.

There is something else that makes Newtown different from other mass killings, he said: “What we learned about the personality of the shooter.”

“This was a mother and son who were obsessed with guns," he said. "It was a family where guns were exalted and fetishized. It wasn’t just a nut with a gun.”

To Slotkin, the reason the Newtown massacre did not result in stricter federal gun laws is simple.

“The people who support gun control are not as passionate as people who are against it.  We’ll see if anything changes after the vigil.”

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