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Newtown, Conn., Episcopal priest speaks on gun violence

The small, quiet town in Fairfield County is a world away from the streets of Dorchester, but the two communities are, in a sense, linked: Both mourn the innocent children they have lost to gun violence.

Bishop M. Thomas Shaw, leader of the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts, saw that connection when he and his staff were putting together a day of workshops aimed at helping church members — including many small-town dwellers and suburbanites — find ways to help end violence, part of the B-PEACE for Jorge campaign.

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“When Newtown happened, it was three months after Jorge’s death, and it was so clear to all of us that this was not something that just happens in the city,” Shaw said in an interview in his office last month. “This happens everywhere.”

He was sitting next to the Rev. Kathleen Adams-Shepherd of Trinity Episcopal Church in Newtown, whom he had invited to speak at the diocese’s “Resource Day,” which brought more than 350 Episcopalians from across Eastern Massachusetts to Roxbury Community College. Its aim was to give people concrete things to do — help a school, support traumatized families, campaign for stricter gun control laws.

Adams-Shepherd, who celebrated the funeral Mass of one of the Newtown victims, 6-year-old parishioner Benjamin Wheeler, said she has been “trying to figure out where my voice fits” in many different forums outside her parish since the tragedy. She has supported the families of victims in their efforts to pass stricter gun control laws, sometimes speaking out herself.

More than anything, though, she has been caring for the Wheelers and other families affected by the shootings — something Shaw said he wanted his flock to hear about, too.

Adams-Shepherd had been rector of Trinity for 18 years the morning of Dec. 14, 2012, when Adam Lanza walked into Sandy Hook Elementary School with a .223-caliber Bushmaster semiautomatic rifle. Her son, a member of the town fire department, was home from college when the shooting occurred. Adams-Shepherd was brushing her teeth when he rapped on the bathroom door and said, “There’s been a shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary, I have to go.”

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He left. Adams-Shepherd raced to the school in her car. The road was inaccessible, so she walked over to the firehouse, where parents were assembling, waiting for word of their children. She stayed there all day, an experience she will not recount.

“That’s a sacred day to those families and those parents,” she said. “Just suffice it to say that I was there with them that day.”

That night, her church held a service with Taize music, quiet meditative chanting popularized by an ecumenical monastic order in southern France. She cried for the first time that day. When she spoke, she asked everyone to hug one another, and they did, for a long time.

In the days that followed, she offered what she called “the ministry of presence” to the Wheeler family and others in her parish — hugging, crying, offering strength. She helped the Wheelers plan the calling hours and funeral for little Ben. Their older son, Nate, a fourth-grader, had been in the school that day, too.

Ben loved lighthouses — a fitting theme for those dark days, Adams-Shepherd said. A maritime museum filled the church with lighthouses of different sizes, and the church gave little lighthouse ornaments to the hundreds who attended. Her sermon was a talk with the children, who made the adults laugh a little when they tried to show Adams-Shepherd “the light of Jesus” inside them by opening their mouths wide.

“Everyone I’ve talked to who came to the funeral said they felt like God enfolded us in a cocoon that day and really lifted our hearts when we never suspected our hearts could lift,” she said.

Since then, Adams-Shepherd has traveled with Newtown families advocating stricter gun control laws to her state’s capital and to Washington, D.C. She was there the day the Senate rejected legislation expanding background checks for gun sales, something Newtown families had campaigned for intensively.

It was frustrating, she acknowledges, but she also saw reason for optimism.

“I was in the cafeteria of the Senate building, and every flat screen was on that vote, every conversation at every table around me was about it,” she said. “At that moment, it didn’t really matter to me what side anyone was on — there it was, they got the debate, that is the beginning.”

Now, she is working alongside others to advocate for restricting the size of magazines and combating illegal gun trafficking, among other measures. The focus now, she said, is on endeavoring to have a “parent-to-parent” dialogue with legislators and others, asking the depolarizing question, how can we best keep our children safe?

“I don’t think we’re naive in the church that all is going to happen at once,” Shaw said. “In all of our work that we do in civil rights, and around gay and lesbian issues, we know that it’s going to be thousands of people making a very simple witness and changing things over a period of time.”

More than nine months after the tragedy, Adams-Shepherd said that in some ways, her ministry is the same as it always has been — she and her parish are still listening to God. But in other ways, it is not the same at all.

“There isn’t a day that is not about this in some way,” she said.

In the year since Jorge Fuentes was killed, Shaw said he has been profoundly moved by church members’ concern about violence and their willingness to try to do something about it.

“I don’t know that it’s changed my ministry as much as I feel like God is always showing me how much people care,” he said. “And Jorge was a great kid. I’m glad that God gave me the privilege of knowing him — and letting him ask me difficult questions.”

Lisa Wangsness can be reached at lwangsness@globe.com.

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