'I've never been so proud to be a Knoxvillean'
Historian John Bohstedt talks about tackling the gunman who killed two at Tennessee Valley UU Church; reflects on city’s response.
Bohstedt has been a member of TVUUC for almost 30 years, joining shortly after he and his family moved to Knoxville. He has served the church in various capacities as board member, member of the ministerial relations committee, chair of the long-range planning committee, and congregation president. Cast as the character Daddy Warbucks in the children’s musical, he was seated at the back of the sanctuary waiting for his cue when he saw a man enter the sanctuary with a guitar case. Below he describes the sequence of events:
Bohstedt: In the second scene of “Annie,” Annie escapes from the orphanage and is out there with her flashlight in the darkness and is about to back into Miss Hannigan [a character in the play]. The background music is suspenseful and ominous. You have a suspended sense of reality because of the theater. I’m Daddy Warbucks, and I’ve got 15 minutes before I go on.
This guy comes in whom I’ve never seen before and puts down a little bag and his guitar case. I thought, “There are no guitars in this musical.” The bag looked like it could be a photo bag of sorts, and I thought he could be a photographer. Then he opened the guitar case and took out a gun. At that point I didn’t know what was going on.
Then he stepped into the sanctuary and fired a shot into the sanctuary. At first many of us thought it was some new sound effect or element that had been added to the suspense. Then he fired the second shot and people started screaming.
You literally have to decide, “What am I seeing?” Then you know this is the real thing. When he fired the second shot I rushed at him.
My goal was to get the gun and get it pointed up toward the ceiling. Then at least that would stop the shooting. When I got to him, I was coming at him from the side. I didn’t perceive myself to be in physical danger. There were three or four other guys rushing at him, too. He was down on the floor on his face with his arms pinned in two or three seconds.
I wasn’t at all surprised that there were lots of us on top of him. If I’d had time to think, I would have said that that was what was going to happen.
After we’d pinned him down, I ran into the coatroom and got a thin nylon jacket and tied it around his ankles so that in case he did slip away, at least he wouldn’t be able to run. Then, I spent 20 minutes trying to keep Greg McKendry with us. [McKendry, an usher, was fatally injured when he confronted the gunman.] I was rubbing his wrists and rubbing his head and speaking into his ear, “Stay with us, Greg. You’re a hero. We need you.” His wife was there saying the same thing, and we were trying our best to keep him with us.
UU World: I’ve heard that your neighboring church, Second Presbyterian, was helpful in the shooting’s aftermath.
Bohstedt: When our kids ran out of the back doors of the sanctuary, their adult leaders immediately took them to Second Presbyterian. Second Presbyterian has been a great neighbor of ours. They took these kids in and locked down the building. Then, as soon as the police had arrived and cleared up the scene, they came back over to bring ice and water and loving care and whatever they could to aid us while the police were organizing their investigation.
When we dedicated our new church, the Presbyterian minister came bounding down the hill from next door. He beamed and said to us in a loud voice, “We Trinitarians welcome you Unitarians to the neighborhood!” That’s the way they’ve been all the way.
Monday night Second Presbyterian hosted a big community candlelight vigil service for us to help us recover and to comfort and console us. That building was totally packed! There were people of all churches and no churches, from mosques and synagogues. Everybody was packed in essentially putting their arms around us. Our minister, [the Rev.] Chris Buice, said that there was a power in that room, and we really felt that. When [UUA President] Bill Sinkford said that our religion is about standing on the side of love and we’re not going to give that up, we really felt that, too.
We sang some classic UU hymns, and at the end the kids sprang up into the center aisle of the church at the front and sang “Tomorrow.” “The sun will come [out], tomorrow,” with bright faces, bright voices. We will never forget that. That was literally like sunshine. That was like life coming back at us. Those were the moments when we started back. We’re not back, but we’ve started back.
At a service of comfort [Tuesday] night, one UU said, “I’ve never been so proud to be a Knoxvillean,” and I would echo that. Knoxville showed us that there are a lot more good people than bad people.
UU World: Does being a history professor give you any perspective on this?
Bohstedt: I teach British history, Irish history, world history, and most of all about the history of riots. There are some riots that we can sympathize with, like food riots protesting high prices and calling for relief. Then there are lynchings, which are riots that we hate and we say are pure evil. For decades I’ve tried to teach students to empathize, to put themselves imaginatively into the shoes of the people we’re looking at.
It is relevant to my thinking about violence. When I read about genocide, like in Rwanda, I put myself in that story. What would I do, what would it feel like? What can we do against this kind of thing?
In the other part of my life, I’m a political activist. I’m in peace marches and protests against the war. I’m also a precinct chair in [the Democratic] party. I try to mobilize volunteers to get people out to vote. When you go door to door, you’re also thinking about what it is that moves people, good people, to get up and do something. That’s what I call political mobilization, and political mobilization is the core that ties all this together. It doesn’t tie it together with a man like the one who fired the shotgun. But it helps you feel that good people can act together and get something done.
UU World: Any words of advice for readers?
Bohstedt: Hundreds of people have sent their condolences and love and support—and also confusion, which is perfectly appropriate. It all helps. Just like the thousand of people who took us in their arms Monday night, all those people making their expressions of support and love, every one of them matters.
I’d like to tell people, think about what you would do [in such a situation], and when your moment comes, do it.
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