A Unitarian Universalist congregation in Florida is working on recovery this week from the tragic shooting deaths of five of its members.
The deaths occurred Friday, December 14, 2007, when police say a man shot and killed his ex-wife, the couple’s two small children, and the ex-wife’s female partner. The man also killed himself.
The five were all members of Unitarian Universalists of Clearwater, a 340-member congregation in Clearwater, Fla.
According to police reports Oliver Bernsdorff went to the apartment of Jennifer Davis, from whom he was divorced in August, and shot her and her partner, Andrea Pisanello. After that he returned to his own residence and shot and killed his and Davis’ two children, Olivia, 4, and Magnus, 2, of whom he had custody. Shortly thereafter, as police followed him down a highway, he fatally shot himself in his vehicle.
Bernsdorff, 36, was an adult education instructor for the Pinellas County School District and was studying for a doctorate in education, according to news reports. Davis, 27, and Pisanello, 53, met at church and both worked at the Hospice of the Florida Suncoast.
The day after the shootings the congregation came together in a memorial ingathering at the church. About 200 people attended. It was organized by Associate Minister the Rev. Millie Rochester, congregation president Linda Stoller, and the Rev. Mark Morrison-Reed. The Rev. Abhi Janamanchi, the congregation’s minister since 1999, had left on a sabbatical trip to India a week before the shootings. He returned December 16. Morrison-Reed was serving as a consulting minister for part of Janamanchi’s sabbatical.
The Rev. Rosemary Bray McNatt of the Unitarian Universalist Trauma Response Ministry team, and the Rev. Kenn Hurto, district executive of the UUA Florida District, also came to help the congregation this week.
On Sunday, December 16, Morrison-Reed led worship services, giving people another opportunity to share their feelings and be together. Grief counselors from the hospice where the two deceased women worked met with religious education teachers and parents for 45 minutes while Rochester led the children in worship. The counselors then sat in on two RE classes and afterwards made themselves available to anyone who needed them.
Janamanchi said Tuesday that the congregation is grateful for the support it is receiving: “We have received a tremendous outpouring of love and support from colleagues and congregations not only in North America, but the United Kingdom, India, and Japan. We have also had offers of help from area colleagues for which we are deeply grateful. It’s helped ease the burden of sorting through all this by ourselves.”
Most local media coverage has been respectful, he said. He attributed part of that to the congregation’s history of being engaged with oppressed people, from those who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender, to migrant workers. “The time and effort we have invested over the years in these causes came to our aid, I believe,” Janamanchi said. In addition, the congregation has worked to create enduring relationships with local news media, he said.
The church will hold memorial services for all five people starting on Saturday, December 22, and continuing after the holidays, Janamanchi said. The last one will be for Oliver Bernsdorff. “That will be the hardest one,” he said quietly. He said all five people had attended church regularly. He had dedicated both of the children who died.
The congregation is trying not to dwell on why the tragedy happened or whether anything could have prevented it, he said. “We are inviting people to be attendant to their own feelings of grief, loss, anger, and betrayal and we’re trying not to dwell on the ‘what ifs.’ When a community is bonded in love and caring for one another, even when they are confronted with an unspeakable tragedy, the community is still able to cope and turn its face toward hope.”