Raleigh, N.C. — He spoke for a nation in sorrow, but the slaughter of all those little boys and girls left President Barack Obama, like many church-goers gathered at a vigil in Raleigh, reaching for words.
Alone on a spare stage after the worst single day of his presidency, the commander-in-chief was a parent in grief.
"I am very mindful that mere words cannot match the depth of your sorrow, nor can they heal your wounded hearts," Obama said at an evening vigil in the grieving community of Newtown, Conn. "I can only hope that it helps for you to know that you are not alone in your grief."
Clergy echoed that feeling of solidarity during a candlelight vigil at Pullen Memorial Baptist in Raleigh for the 20 children and six adults slain Friday at Sandy Hook Elementary.
"We vicariously grieve with others, because I imagine, what would it be like for me?" said Duane Beck, a grandparent and pastor of Raleigh Mennonite Church.
"We come today to pray for our neighbors in Newtown," Petty said. "As one humanity, we all connected."
For Obama, ending his fourth year in office, it was another sorrowful visit to another community in disbelief. It is the job of the president to be there, to listen and console, to offer help even when the only thing within his grasp is a hug.
Inside the vigil, children held stuffed teddy bears and dogs. The smallest kids sat on their parents' laps.
There were tears and hugs but also smiles and squeezed arms. Mixed with disbelief was a sense of a community reacquainting itself all at once. One man said it was less mournful, more familial. Some children chatted easily with their friends. The adults embraced each other in support.
The president first met privately with families of the victims and with the emergency personnel who responded to the shootings. That meeting happened at Newtown High School, the site of Sunday night's interfaith vigil, about a mile and a half from where the shootings took place.
"We're halfway between grief and hope," said Curt Brantl, whose fourth-grade daughter was in the library of the elementary school when the shootings occurred. She was unharmed.
Police and firefighters got hugs and standing ovations when they entered. So did Obama.
"We needed this," said the Rev. Matt Crebbin, senior minister of the Newtown Congregational Church. "We need to be together here in this room. ... We needed to be together to show that we are together and united."
"I know that Newtown will prevail, that we will not fall to acts of violence," said First Selectwoman Patricia Llodra. "It is a defining moment for our town, but it does not define us."
Obama pledged to use "whatever power this office holds" to try to prevent such mass shootings, but did not specify whether those steps would entail changes to gun control, mental health, law enforcement or schools.
"Can say that we're truly doing enough to give all the children of this country the chance they deserve to live out their lives in happiness and with purpose? I've been reflecting on this the last few days," Obama said. "If we're honest without ourselves, the answer is no. And we will have to change.
"What choice do we have?" he continued. "Are we really prepared to say that we're powerless in the face of such carnage, that the politics are too hard?"
Obama, who wrote most of the speech by himself, closed his remarks by slowly reading the first names of each of the 26 victims.
"God has called them all home. For those of us who remain, let us find the strength to carry on and make our country worthy of their memory," he said.
Whatever actions political leaders take in the coming days, parents holding children tight at the Raleigh vigil were encouraged to remember that, even in the shadow of death, light shines.
"We wait for God, our souls wait, and in God's word, we hope," the congregation said together.
"Carry your light with you," Petty said.