Dave Checketts is not a professionally trained clergyman. The former chairman of Madison Square Garden and the New York Knicks is currently CEO of Legends Hospitality, the concessions and merchandise company he jointly owns with the New York Yankees and Dallas Cowboys.
But he's also a lay minister for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints with oversight of 10 Mormon congregations in Fairfield County, Conn., including the one in Newtown.
On Friday morning, Checketts had left his New Canaan, Conn., home and headed to his Park Avenue office to prepare for a weekend business trip to Dallas for Sunday's Cowboys-Steelers game. He and Cowboys owner Jerry Jones planned to host a group of new investors. But late morning he got an email about a shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary. From his laptop, he accessed the church records for Mormon families in Newtown. Five of them had children that attended the school.
A series of phone calls confirmed that all of those children were accounted for except one — 6-year-old Emilie Parker, a first-grader.
Suddenly, it wasn't possible to focus on business. Checketts cleared his calendar for the afternoon.
Robbie and Alyssa Parker had just moved to Connecticut from Ogden, Utah. Along with Emilie, they have daughters ages 2 and 4. Robbie, a health care professional, worked at Danbury Hospital. When Checketts reached him there, the facility was on lockdown due to the school shooting. Robbie was heading to meet his wife at the fire station in Newtown. She was there with other parents awaiting word on the children.
Checketts emailed leaders of Mormon congregations throughout western Connecticut: "Pray for Emilie Parker."
He also organized a prayer service for that night. Then he headed back to Connecticut. He was almost to the Parkers' home when he got word that Emilie was among the 20 children who had died.
"I didn't know what to say," Checketts said. "I go back and forth between tears and anger. It is just hard to comprehend."
The business trip to Dallas got canceled. In an email, Checketts notified Jones and the investors. One by one, they expressed condolences and promised prayers.
When Checketts reached the Parker home, Robbie asked him to lead his family in prayer. While praying, Checketts felt impressed to say that Robbie would deal with his grief by speaking publicly about the tragedy, and that he would emerge as a powerful voice for compassion and peace.
After the prayer, the family's needs were discussed. Chief among them was finding a mortician. But funeral homes in the area were overwhelmed. Checketts promised to take care of everything, including all burial and funeral expenses.
He called a funeral home in a nearby town. Six years earlier, Checketts had attended a service there for a young Mormon missionary who was killed by a drunk driver in Argentina.
"I had to go tell that boy's parents that he wasn't coming home alive," Checketts said.
It was the hardest thing he'd ever done as an ecclesiastical leader. However, that experience had introduced Checketts to an empathetic funeral director.
Suddenly facing an even harder situation, Checketts reached out to him and asked if he would prepare Emily's body for burial. Checketts explained how all the expenses would be covered.
"There will be no expenses," the funeral director said.
The following day, after authorities released the names of the victims, Robbie Parker was the first parent to speak to the national media. Without notes or a spokesman, Robbie choked back tears and expressed sympathy for the family of the man who killed 27 people and himself. "I can't imagine how hard this experience must be for you," he said.
Checketts was moved to tears.
"What happened in Newtown is unthinkable," Checketts said. "But little children are alive in Christ. Though the nature of the crime is the essence of evil, our faith tells us that these children burst into the presence of God and are safe in his arms."
Grief, while heartbreaking, can also give rise to powerful acts of compassion. By the time Abraham Lincoln gave his second inaugural address on March 4, 1865, the American Civil War had claimed roughly 750,000 lives, resulting in 37,000 widows and 90,000 orphans.
Why did God allow such devastation? It was a question Lincoln had pondered. Plus, there were many in Washington who wanted to punish the Confederates for all the carnage. Against that backdrop, Lincoln said:
"With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation's wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan — to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves, and with all nations."
One month later, Lincoln was assassinated. But those words — "with malice toward none" — live on.
It reminds me of the story of Kenneth Brown, a U.S. Marine serving in Japan after the atomic bomb. It was just before Christmas when Brown encountered a Japanese professor of music who introduced himself as a Christian. He said he had a small children's choir and asked if they could perform a concert for the American soldiers.
Brown belonged to a unit of hardened fighters that had spent four years away from home, battling the Japanese from Saipan to Iwo Jima. The concert took place on Christmas Eve in a bombed-out theater. The closing number was a solo from "The Messiah" by a girl who sung with the conviction of one who knew that Jesus was indeed the Savior of mankind. The soldiers cried.
Afterward, Brown asked the Japanese music professor: "How did your group manage to survive the bomb?"
"This is only half my group," he said softly.
"And what of the families of these?"
"They nearly all lost one or more members. Some are orphans."
"What about the soloist? She must have the soul of an angel the way she sang."
"Her mother, two of her brothers were taken. Yes, she did sing well. I am so proud of her. She is my daughter."
Brown was moved to tears.
"We had caused them the greatest grief," Brown later wrote. "Yet we were their Christian brothers and as such they were willing to forget their grief and unite with us in singing 'Peace on earth, goodwill to all men.' That day I knew there was a greater power on earth than the atomic bomb."
Jeff Benedict is a special features contributor for Sports Illustrated and the author of 11 books. His website is www.jeffbenedict.com.