An unrepentant Jim David Adkisson pleaded guilty on February 9 to two counts of first-degree murder and six counts of attempted murder for a shooting rampage in the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church (TVUUC) in Knoxville on July 27, 2008. He had walked into the church intent on killing “liberals,” whom he blamed in a four-page letter for the country’s ills and his inability to get a job. As children performed the musical Annie Jr., Adkisson took a shotgun out of a guitar case and fatally shot TVUUC member Greg McKendry, 60, and Westside Unitarian Universalist Church member Linda Lee Kraeger, 61, before others in the congregation overpowered him.
Adkisson was sentenced to life in prison without parole. Smiling and joking with his attorney, he declined when the judge asked if he wanted to address members of the two churches, who were sitting in the courtroom with their ministers, the Rev. Chris Buice from TVUUC and the Rev. Mitra Jafarzadeh from Westside.
Adkisson also released a manifesto he left in his vehicle on the morning of the shooting. Although police said shortly after he was arrested that Adkisson had targeted the church for its progressive views, his four-page manifesto had not previously been published. “I’d like to encourage other like-minded people to do what I’ve done,” Adkisson wrote. “If life ain’t worth living anymore don’t just kill yourself. Do something for your country before you go. Go kill liberals.”
In the letter Adkisson called the church, which his ex-wife had attended years ago, “a cult.” “The UU church is the fountainhead, the veritable wellspring of anti-American organizations. . . . They embrace every pervert that comes down the pike, but if they find out your [sic] a conservative, they absolutely hate you. I know. I experienced it.”
Although local media have reported that Adkisson attended the church with his ex-wife, Liza Anderson, Buice said there is no indication Adkisson ever attended any events at TVUUC.
“This brings some measure of closure,” Buice said. “His letter makes it clear this was a hate crime. This [sentencing] was the best possible outcome. We have no feelings of vindictiveness or a desire to punish him, but we do have a profound need to create a safe community where he will not be a threat to himself or others. The responsible thing has been done.”
The weekend before Adkisson pleaded guilty, TVUUC held a series of events marking its sixtieth anniversary. On Sunday, February 8, the church named its fellowship hall for McKendry and its library for Kraeger, a retired English professor.
Buice said the fellowship hall was a good choice as a memorial for McKendry. “It’s a large place and he was a larger-than-life person,” Buice said. “He loved social activities, especially if there was food. This is a place of hospitality, and this is where we cook meals for the homeless and where our Spectrum Coffeehouse sometimes has events.” The Spectrum Coffeehouse is a gathering place for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender youth from the Knoxville area.
The library includes a collection of Kraeger’s books, including several she wrote on religion and philosophy. “She had a passion for religious studies and for Shakespeare and a particular interest in religious freedom,” said Buice.
“We remember Greg for his heart of gold and Linda for a mind on fire,” Buice said.
UUA President William G. Sinkford preached at two Sunday morning services at TVUUC. In the afternoon he gave the inaugural speech at a lecture series at Westside named for Kraeger.
Following Adkisson’s sentencing, Sinkford said, “It is a blessing that our congregations will not have to endure the agony of a long public trial.” He added, “Now it is the task of our congregations, and of religious people in general, to work toward healing, and to find a religious voice that can help bring such violence to an end.”
Jafarzadeh said the tragedy of last summer changed her congregation––bringing it closer to other UU communities, other religious groups in Knoxville, and bringing members closer to each other.
“It deepened the ways we care for each other,” Jafarzadeh said. “We recently created a lay ministry team at Westside, and we expanded the care committee to include the entire congregation. We are very thankful to all of the UU communities who sent us words of encouragement, paper cranes, and cards. With interfaith groups we are inspired to move further into a vision of beloved community. That seems more important since July.”
Jafarzadeh said the killings have connected Westside and TVUUC with churches throughout history where people have died for practicing free religion. “Our struggles for freedom echo down through the generations.” She said other east Tennessee UU congregations have been especially supportive: the Oak Ridge UU Church, Holston Valley UU Church in Gray, and the Foothills UU Fellowship in Maryville.
Westside and TVUUC have both grown in numbers since the tragedy and the publicity that followed. Westside has grown by 15 percent, to 100 members. TVUUC had 501 members before 40 departed in the past two years to start a new congregation, Foothills, south of Knoxville. TVUUC now has 510. “We were supposed to have a dip, but that didn’t happen,” said Buice.
Jafarzadeh and Buice credit the UU Trauma Response Ministry, composed of ministers and others who respond to trauma situations, with helping their congregations survive and recover from the tragedy.
Members of both congregations continue to recover from their injuries. Westside member Linda Chavez, who was severely injured, continues to make progress, said Jafarzadeh. “She impresses us with her recovery, optimism, and her spirit. She has recovered enough so that she is giving back to us. Her presence has been good for all of us.”
TVUUC member Tammy Sommers spent weeks in the hospital and months in recovery after five shotgun pellets entered her brain. Now, back on her feet and back in church, she told a Knoxville TV reporter last week, “God intends for me to be here. That is clear to me.”
The tragedy deepened TVUUC members’ need for community, Buice said. “We’d always been caring, but we started doing more of it. We now have four or five spiritual parenting groups. People want to be connected with each other.” For himself, Buice said, “I gave up thinking I had to do everything. There’s a deeper sense of shared ministry here.”
The children of both congregations are doing well, Buice said. “For the next several Sundays after the shooting we held intergenerational services because the children needed to recover along with the adults. It helped strengthen connections between children and adults. We have new choral groups for children also. I’d say the children are doing fine.”
At the close of each Sunday service, Buice had a practice of delivering closing words from one of the two rear entrances to the sanctuary, but not always the same one. “After the shootings—and this wasn’t a conscious thing that I know of—I found myself going to stand at the exact spot outside the door where Greg died. I haven’t done anything else since. It just feels right.”
- Knoxville Church Shooting. Comprehensive news coverage from the Knoxville News Sentinel. (knoxnews.com)
- Jim David Adkisson’s Four-Page Manifesto. Shooter justifies his ‘hate crime.’ (PDF; knoxnews.com)
- Unitarian Universalists Respond to Tragedy in Knoxville. Resources and links from the Unitarian Universalist Association. (UUA.org)
- Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church. Knoxville. (tvuuc.org)
- Westside Unitarian Universalist Church. Knoxville. (westknoxuu.org)