The Common Good

Newtown's Teddy Bears: How Many is Too Many?

When a distressed child hugs a teddy bear, there is a moment of innocent comfort that not only soothes the child but the grownups around her, too.

Photo by Susan Kim
Photo by Susan Kim

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No wonder, then, in the wake of the Dec. 14, 2012, mass shooting in Newtown, Conn., the donation of choice for many people was a teddy bear. The bears — huge, tiny, handmade, store-bought, rainbow-colored, traditional brown — began arriving within 24 hours of the tragedy. They came from churches, children's groups, Facebook campaigns, car dealerships, and individuals across the globe.

Undeniably, for some of the children in Newtown — and adults, for that matter — a new stuffed animal was just the right gift at the right time.

But then a hundred bears arrived. Then a thousand. Then tens of thousands. Along with prayer shawls. Flowers. Rubber bracelets. What callously might be referred to as “stuff” if it didn't so fiercely represent a burning collective desire to reassure the people of Newtown that the world is not, in fact, an evil place.

A lot of “stuff” landed at the Newtown United Methodist Church, which has been a pillar for the town's ongoing recovery. The pastor, Rev. Mel Kawakami, has been featured on national television and in dozens of print and web news reports. The town's role in Newtown's recovery is finely documented by G. Jeffrey MacDonald in The Christian Science Monitor.

Now, three months after the tragedy, Kawakami quietly worries that he has perhaps offended some gift givers because he hasn't yet responded to them. His “sister churches,” he says, have already helped write more than 300 thank-you notes. But there are thousands more to go.

“You don't want to sound ungracious,” he says, “and you don't want to be ungracious. Because we became a witness for how deeply people were touched.”

Just what is the best response to a horrendous act of public violence? There's no right answer, Kawakami says. “One strategy might be to do something in your own community that honors the victims and also honors those who survived.”

Also, he says, don't underestimate the power of prayer. “We wouldn't have made it if we didn't know there were untold numbers of people praying for us.”

What about our own need to send “stuff?” Mary Hughes Gaudreau, a U.S. disaster-response consultant for the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR), believes it's important to recognize the hearts of people involved in giving.

“I really do think when people give gifts after acts of public violence that, in some ways, they're trying to deal with their own pain,” says Gaudreau, who has supported Kawakami and the Newtown church during the ongoing recovery. “We don't want to have suffering be the last word. We need to touch something or do something tangible to make that real.”

UMCOR is a nonprofit ministry of The United Methodist Church dedicated to alleviating human suffering across the globe. Within UMCOR's broad range of response to disasters, a vital component is emotional and spiritual care.

Sometimes when you're trying to offer emotional and spiritual care, it's important to examine yourself as a giver, Gaudreau says. “There are times when we find people who get very angry when their desire to do something good is rejected. They desperately want to help and they feel frustrated when their help is not needed.”

That doesn't mean the teddy bears were rejected. Some of them went to local parents who had lost newborn babies. Some were given to church visitors and parishioners. Some were transformed into compost destined for a memorial garden. And some did make it into the arms of kids.

“The truth is, they needed those teddy bears,” says Gaudreau.

But thousands of them? “Then it gets complicated,” she adds, “and we need to consider those six key words: It's about the people we serve.”

What would Kawakami say is the best response? He would like people to keep praying for Newtown. “But if I could attach a tag to that,” he says, hesitating. “If you can freely send out the prayer—without expecting something in return.”

In normal times, he says, when someone sends a gift, you respond. “But multiply that by ten-thousandfold and there isn't a way to respond. My fear is that someone has taken offense because they've heard nothing.”

Susan Kim is a journalist who frequently writes on appropriate donations, disaster response, and social justice.

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