Strangers gather on the Mall to honor Newtown victims

(Jahi Chikwendiu/ The Washington Post ) - Alonzo Howard of D.C. blows bubbles on the grounds of the Washington Monument on Monday, December 24, 2012, in Washington, DC. In response to the Sandy Hook tragedy, families gathered at the monument to sing for those lost in the tragic event.

(Jahi Chikwendiu/ The Washington Post ) - Alonzo Howard of D.C. blows bubbles on the grounds of the Washington Monument on Monday, December 24, 2012, in Washington, DC. In response to the Sandy Hook tragedy, families gathered at the monument to sing for those lost in the tragic event.

The circle of perhaps 150 strangers materialized quickly at noon Monday on the hard, cold ground in front of the Washington Monument. Hurried by a stiff wind and last-minute Christmas shopping, they clasped hands and began singing.

They were drawn by word of mouth — tweens in silly animal caps and moms in sparkly Santa hats and grandfathers with teary eyes, each one mourning the shooting victims of Newtown, Conn.

(Courtesy of Kathleen Wilks) - In response to the Sandy Hook tragedy, families gathered at the Washington Monument to sing for meaningful reform to prevent any more such tragedies.

People brought bags of gifts still to be wrapped, photocopies of “Amazing Grace” and “Lean on Me,” and different opinions about what caused the shooting. All were set aside for a few moments Monday.

“This goes beyond politics. I have my own views about guns, but that’s not why I’m here,” said Ron Terchek, a retired professor who stood under the gray sky with his wife at midday. “This is just about coming together after something terrible has happened.”

“Something that demands some assertion of something positive,” added his wife, Mary, 72.

The event, dubbed Circle Up for Kids, was thrown together late last week. It originated with Kristin O’Keefe, a Kensington mother of two who said she felt hopeless immediately after the shooting but then was inspired after spotting a childhood copy of Dr. Seuss’s “How the Grinch Stole Christmas.”

Her favorite scene, O’Keefe said, is the one in which the residents of Whoville celebrate Christmas even after the Grinch steals their presents.

“There was a simple power to that moment,” O’Keefe said Monday before the singalong began. “If we could sing for hope and resilience and honor those who were lost, and be here for our kids and all kids impacted by violence, then there is hope we can make things better for our kids.”

O’Keefe posted information about the event on Facebook last week. By Monday, 2,300 people had shared the invitation. Ultimately, about 150 came, creating a large circle in front of the monument. They started softly, with “Amazing Grace.”

Then came “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.”

By the third song, “Jingle Bells,” a light snowfall was underway.

The singers drew curious stares from joggers and tourists, among them Christian Villasmil, a 15-year-old who was visiting Washington with his family from Miami. The 10th-grader said he — and half his school — stayed home Thursday and Friday after rumor spread that gang members planned to shoot each other at their school.

“We’re just praying everything goes back to normal,” said his mother, Dagmara Villasmil. “Parents need to focus on communicating with their children. Everything comes from the home.”

After six quick songs, the singers released each other’s hands.

“You embrace the camaraderie of this and move through it,” said Deb Fiscella, a publicist from Germantown who came with two friends. “I think people gravitate toward simple gestures. It was simple but meaningful.”

Alonzo Howard, a 34-year-old home health worker, choked back tears as he explained how he wound up holding the hands of two women he’d never met, singing “We Are the World” on Christmas Eve on the Mall. “It could have been someone in my family,” he said. “It really hit home, and I have a heart.”

When the singing ended, the circle — and then the snow — dispersed.

 
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