Updated Monday, December 17, 2012 at 06:37 PM
A table crowded with candles commanded center stage Sunday at First United Methodist Church of Seattle. As the Rev. Dr. Sandy Brown called the grim roll, parishioners lit a candle and rang a bell for each of the first-graders, teachers and administrators gunned down Friday in Newtown, Conn.
Many of the nearly hundred people at the early service wept quietly or put a comforting arm around their companions.
The church near Seattle Center was just one of many across the region and nation where congregations mourned the deaths of 20 children and seven adults, including the gunman's mother, and struggled to cope with the tragedy. But Brown challenged his flock to look beyond their tears.
"If we are trying to honor the victims of Sandy Hook Elementary, today is the day to turn our grief into prayer, and our prayer into anger, and our anger into action," he said.
The third Sunday of Advent is normally a joyous day, and Brown had prepared a different sermon. But after Friday's mass shooting, he threw it out. Instead, he made a plea from the pulpit for meaningful gun control.
"I am tired of death by guns," he said. "How many people will have to die before we finally do something?"
National leaders, including President Obama, have been asking the same question in the days since a 20-year-old man used a semi-automatic rifle to massacre 6- and 7-year-olds. On Sunday, U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said she will introduce a bill to ban assault weapons. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg called on the president to make gun laws his "number one" priority.
Gun-rights advocates are keeping a low profile in the emotional aftermath of the shootings. The Los Angeles Times reported that the National Rifle Association and more than 30 senators who are strong supporters of the right to bear arms declined to appear on the Sunday talk shows.
Gun control has long been a political minefield. But Brown said he thinks the nation may have reached a tipping point. "I think there is something different this time," he said before the service. "These are children ... innocent children. I can't imagine a time when we would be more motivated."
It was John Lennon's slaying in 1980 that inspired Brown to become an advocate for gun control. Since then, there have been dozens more mass killings in the United States, he said, in a sermon more packed with statistics than scripture.
Brown cited Australia as an example of what can be done to curb gun violence. After a series of mass shootings, the country instituted stricter controls and launched a buyback program in 1996. There hasn't been a mass shooting since, Brown said.
After the service, churchgoers lined up in the lobby to sign letters to President Obama and the state's congressional delegation, urging action.
Ashesh Bakshi, a visiting choir member, signed his name. His family is in the process of moving to Newtown. His wife and young son already are there. "I'm not religious," he said, "but I found the sermon very convincing."
Bakshi said he has friends who are responsible gun owners. Outside liberal Seattle, there's not much support for additional restrictions on firearm ownership, he pointed out.
Guns are just part of the problem, added Ed Hanson, a member of the congregation since 1987. Hanson is equally concerned about the lack of treatment options for people with mental illness. "It's sorely lacking in this state," he said.
Church member Robyn Wiens, an assistant principal in the Highline School District, said she's concerned about the tragedy's impact on her students' sense of security. "This hurts my heart," she said, "because it's one more thing they have to worry about."
Sandi Doughton: 206-464-2491 or firstname.lastname@example.org
BETTINA HANSEN / THE SEATTLE TIMES
The Rev. Dr. Sandy Brown prays over 27 candles lit for the victims of the Dec. 14 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., during Sunday service at First United Methodist Church in Seattle.
BETTINA HANSEN / THE SEATTLE TIMES
Gwynne Dodge, of Kirkland, signs letters urging local legislators to take action to strengthen gun-control laws after the Rev. Dr. Sandy Brown's sermon Sunday at First United Methodist Church in Seattle.