December 16th, 2012
09:18 PM ET
By Eric Marrapodi and Kate Bolduan, CNN
Newtown, Connecticut (CNN)– The bulletins were printed on Thursday for the third Sunday of Advent for Trinity Episcopal Church in Newtown. There was no mention of Friday in the pages' long order for worship.
By Sunday morning, the church was hosting its fourth service since the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary, and the sanctuary had been open for 72 straight hours keeping vigil.
A half-empty pallet of tissue boxes greeted church members as they arrived in the front hallway. As the second of the morning's two worship services got underway, people were already quietly weeping in their seats.
Young children sat and quietly played or colored next to their parents, unaware of the tragedy around them or that their friend Benjamin Wheeler, a 6-year-old who attended Trinity with his family, was not there. Wheeler was among the 26 people killed at Sandy Hook on Friday when a gunman burst into his elementary school.
Pastor Kathleen Adams-Sheperd recounted to the church how she spent Friday at the fire station, waiting with the parents of elementary school children to find out if their child had made it out safely or was among those who did not.
"Friday in some part has changed our lives forever," she said in her sermon as she stood in the middle of the congregation, eschewing the pulpit for proximity to her members.
Speaking to a crowd still raw and still suffering, she told them of the sermon she had prepared and how it was long gone, asking them to be patient with her as she preached with no notes.
On this day, she said, it was "important to be where we are," to be "present with people." She encouraged them to hug one another.
"No, really, get up and hug someone," she said. Old and young, visitors and members, embraced tearfully.
"Families of our lovely innocent children need our prayers," she said. "Families who survived need our prayers."
"I want you to know talking to the ones who have lost, the one spot of joy is that your children are not lost."
Adult men from the church were posted at the doors this week, she said, so the children in the service and Sunday schools would know this was a safe place for them.
Dressed in purple vestments and wearing a small stud nose ring, Adams-Sheperd walked the church through pieces of the planned Advent service, when Christians light four candles in the four weeks leading up to Christmas to prepare to celebrate the birth of Jesus.
"I believe faith will save us," she said. "To loose this faith is to let the darkness win."
"Was God absent from our world?" she asked, a burning question on the minds of many in this heartbroken town.
"Have we been shaken? Yes. Have we seen hope? Yes, yes, yes."
She pointed to the hero teachers who shielded children, administrators from the school who rushed toward the shooter, and the first-responders as evidence of that hope.
"So many signs of hope and light in the darkness that seems to envelope us; that's what Advent is," she said.
She said she believed the horrific acts were not the will of God.
"Where was God? Surrounding all the children. The 430 that made it out, and the 20 that did not."
God, she said, "was with them, is with them, and will be with them always.
"God will find a way to bring comfort and hope and light. He will wrestle it from the darkness."
In the coming days the church will see multiple funerals, including for little Benjamin Wheeler on Thursday and for another classmate, 6-year-old Madeleine Hsu, on Friday. Adams-Sheperd told the church local funeral directors had donated costs of the funeral to the families.
Cameras were not permitted to film the worship service but the church welcomed reporters to come and worship. Adams-Shepard explained to the crowd she would not go on camera and talk to reporters because she had given her word to the victim's families, and that what happened in the school is "owned by the parents."
She told the congregation if anyone was holding any enmity in their heart it was time to let it go.
"I'm done. I love you. Pray, everyone," she said. And with that she turned to prayer and recited the name of each victim.
CNN's Jeremy Moorhead contributed to this report.
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.