Knoxville church adapts to aftermath of shooting

Knoxville church adapts to aftermath of shooting

TVUUC leaders grateful for outpouring of support, preparing for long road to recovery.
Jane Greer


The cameras are gone and the police tape has been removed from the Unitarian Universalist church in Knoxville where a man took a shotgun out of a guitar case and shot eight people during the Sunday worship service two weeks ago. How is the congregation doing?

The leaders of the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church say the congregation is moving through stages of recovery from trauma, grateful for the outpouring of support they have received since the July 27 incident.

“It’s hard to figure out how a congregation as a whole is doing,” said Ted Jones, TVUUC’s new president. “We find the impact of this event has a lot of different layers, and people were impacted in different ways. It depended on where you were sitting in the sanctuary. It depended on whether you were in the sanctuary or at the other end of the building. Or whether you happened to sleep in that day and didn’t go to church, or were on vacation. The people that were away thought, ‘I should have been there; maybe I could have helped.’”

Members of TVUUC and the Westside Unitarian Universalist Church, along with other members of the Knoxville community, had gathered at TVUUC July 27 for a children’s performance of the musical “Annie Jr.” Just as the performance was getting underway, police say, Jim David Adkisson entered the sanctuary carrying a shotgun concealed in a guitar case and a bag full of shotgun shells. Adkisson fired several blasts before members of the congregation tackled him.

TVUUC usher Greg McKendry died at the scene. Westside Church member Linda Kraeger died from her injuries later that night. Six other people were injured by gunfire, and another was injured trying to escape.

“We made it through the first week,” Jones said. “The first issue was to rededicate the sanctuary and just be in there and tolerate the anxiety.” The congregation rededicated its sanctuary on Sunday, August 3, in a service that drew 800 people, including several former ministers of the congregation. (see below for a link to a report on the rededication service.)

Jones credits the ministers from the UU Trauma Response Ministry team for helping the congregations of both churches process the event and begin recovery. “They helped us through the immediate crisis and set up interventions for individuals with severe trauma,” he said. “They met with church leadership individually, giving them recommendations on a global scale: what to look at in the next few months, what to look at in the next year.”

The UU Trauma Response Ministry was founded by UU ministers in 2002 in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The team has responded to crises following Hurricanes Charley, Katrina, and Rita; the school massacre at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Va., in 2006; and the 2007 California wildfires, among others.

The Rev. Aaron Payson, minister of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Worcester, Mass., is the response coordinator for the Trauma Response Ministry. After spending several days in Knoxville, he called TVUUC “one of the most courageous congregations I’ve ever met.”

As part of his counseling, Payson briefed church leaders on the different stages of reaction that individuals and institutions go through in their trauma recovery. One of the early response phases, after the trauma itself, is what Payson referred to as the “honeymoon” period.

“This is a period of intensive caring,” Payson said. He noted that TVUUC might be moving beyond this phase now. “The euphoria of feeling well cared for is beginning to wind down,” he said. “In the initial phase we saw hundreds of people. We had counselors at the church from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m., and people could just stop by. Now these people are being referred [to local caregivers].”

The hardest—and longest—phase of the process is called “disillusionment,” Payson said. “Reality sets in. There are not as many resources on site and available. There can be frustration that the legal process is not as expedient as hoped. People can feel like others have moved on.”

There can also be frustration about people’s different experiences of the trauma, Payson said. “One person may say they heard three shots; another will say they heard two.” People will need to honor these different experiences, he said, and accept that truth is a matter of perception. At the institutional level, he termed this acceptance of diversity, “sacred ambiguity.”

While most of those affected by the shooting are aware of the long road to recovery, many of them are experiencing a more immediate reaction: gratitude. Gratitude for UUA support, gratitude for the support offered by the Knoxville interfaith community, and gratitude for the cards, letters, and emails sent by UUs and others.

“I want to say thank you,” said Jones. “In the midst of everything, someone put up a map and put a sticker on every place we had received a message of support or letter or email from. And the map was just covered!”

Jayne Raparelli, the congregation’s past president, talked about the ways that TVUUC members reacted in this time of crisis. “People have risen to the occasion, whatever their gifts,” she said. “They have shown forth in abundance: people who have written thank-you notes, people who have cleaned, people who have just appeared on the spot and provided necessary leadership.”

“It has brought out the absolute best in us,” she continued. “It’s made me very proud to be a Unitarian Univeralist, and I don’t think I’m alone in saying that.”

The Rev. Chris Buice, TVUUC’s minister, was on the last week of his sabbatical when the shooting occurred. He described the widespread support the congregation has received from the Knoxville community, as well as from area churches and religious groups.

“We thought it was about us,” Buice said. “What we discovered was that it was about the entire Knoxville community. Our children were their children. We had people show up for the [memorial service Monday night, July 28] from the Tibetan Buddhist Center, from the synagogues, the local mosque, and a wide variety of Christian churches.”

“The people who have come to feed us,” he continued, “come from churches you’d consider conservative, liberal, and everything in between. But they fed us and loved us and didn’t discriminate on the basis of race or sexual orientation. It’s been a reflection of overwhelming, overpowering love.”

Raparelli said that as president she would sometimes hear people questioning the dues that the congregation paid to the UUA. “I would venture to say that we now know more the value of being part of the UUA and the Thomas Jefferson District,” she said.

Buice agreed. “The UUA, Bill Sinkford, the UU trauma team, and [district executive] Annette Marquis have earned all of the dues we’ve paid since 1949,” he said. “Unquestionably.”

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