Unitarian Universalist congregations reflect on first year after a deadly shooting rampage.
The celebration marked the end of a trauma-filled year for the 500-member Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church and the 120-member Westside Unitarian Universalist Church, both in Knoxville. On July 27, 2008, Jim David Adkisson, 58, entered TVUUC’s sanctuary during a children’s musical performance and began firing a shotgun he had been carrying in a guitar case. Before being tackled by congregants, he fatally wounded Greg McKendry, 60, a member of TVUUC, and Linda Kraeger, 61, a Westside member. Six people were injured: Joe Barnhart, a Westside member; his daughter Linda Chavez; his brother Jack Barnhart; Betty Barnhart, Jack’s wife; Tammy Sommers, a TVUUC member; Allison Lee; and John Worth.
After the shooting police found a letter in Adkisson’s car in which he described his “hatred of the liberal movement, liberals in general, as well as gays.” Adkisson had been married to a former TVUUC member ten years earlier. He pleaded guilty and was sentenced to life in prison in February 2009.
The program Monday night was a way of honoring both Knoxville congregations as well as thanking the community for its support. Called the “Instruments of Peace Concert,” the program opened with a guitar solo. “Last year somebody came in carrying an instrument of destruction,” said the Rev. Chris Buice, TVUUC’s minister. “This year the guitar cases will have instruments of peace.” Speakers included the Rev. Mitra Jafarzadeh, minister of the Westside Unitarian Universalist Church, Rabbi Beth Schwartz of Temple Beth El, Layla Hussein of the Muslim community of Knoxville, and Tammy Sommers, a TVUUC member and one of the shooting victims.
The concert marks the end of a year filled with struggle for both congregations. Since the shooting both congregations have worked to heal and regroup.
“We’ve had the predictable trauma response,” said Buice. “We’ve had our meltdowns and our things falling apart. But we had really good training from the UU Trauma Response team. They came in and were so helpful in anticipating what we would go through that when we were going through that, we’d say, ‘Oh, they told us that we’d do this.’ It really helped us keep things in perspective.”
Members of the UU Trauma Response Ministry, formed in the wake of 9/11, flew in immediately after the shooting last year to help clergy and congregational leaders cope with the trauma. They have continued to provide support to the congregations throughout the year.
One of the issues that both congregations have faced is the fact that people heal and recover at different rates.
Jafarzadeh, Westside’s minister, said, “One of the challenges [we’ve faced] is that everyone’s perception of events and everyone’s rate of healing are different. We’re not a homogeneous group. The greatest challenge is meeting people where they are.”
Carolyn Rogers, head of TVUUC’s lay ministry team, which helps to provide pastoral care, agreed: “Everyone’s rate of recovery is different. Some people are saying, ‘We’re ready to move on.’ Other people have said, ‘I just don’t feel like I’m recovering as fast as everybody else.’ Everyone’s moving along at a different rate.”
The Rev. Aaron Payson, response coordinator for the UU Trauma Response Ministry, said that this was a predictable part of the recovery process. “Different people bring different levels of personal experience to bear on this event and it affects them differently. The rate of recovery has a lot to do with not only what they brought to the event but what they availed themselves of in terms of their own needs in the healing process. Some people availed themselves of the debriefing groups, some availed themselves of personal mental health services, and some availed themselves of stress relief and relaxation experiences.”
Payson was one of the team of ministers the Trauma Ministry sent to Knoxville last year. He also attended TVUUC’s anniversary service on July 26 and the concert on July 27.
Jafarzadeh also said that her congregants have sometimes felt left out of the media coverage, which has focused on TVUUC, the site of the shooting, despite the fact that one of the fatalities and one of the injured were members of Westside. “It’s been difficult for us to pick up the paper every day and see all the news coverage and not be included in it,” she said. “We also feel the pain. We, too, have had to tend to the hurts of our congregants.”
Lorraine Darwin, team leader of Westside’s lay ministry, agreed. “Recognizing that TVUUC was the physical site of the shooting, it’s naturally the focus of the media attention surrounding this anniversary,” she said. “Sadly, Westside has become a footnote to that. We don’t crave media attention, but we were and are an integral part of the larger story of the shooting.”
“We need to make sure that Westside takes its place along TVUUC when the historical story is told about the day that the UU faith came under fire, not just TVUUC, but the faith as a whole,” she added.
Westside members recently stitched a shirt together that had been torn apart last August in a ritual marking the shooting death of member Linda Kraeger and the injuring of member Joe Barnhart, as well as several members of his extended family. The torn shirt had been displayed for a year and then it was coarsely mended to symbolize that the community had come together again but that it would never be the same. The shirt was passed from hand to hand at Westside’s Sunday service on July 26.
At the TVUUC service on July 26, Boone and Braxxton Sommers, sons of shooting victim Tammy Sommers, lit the chalice. Both boys were in the audience the day of the shooting. Sommers, 39, told knoxnews.com that she had changed places with the boys at the last minute so they could have a better view. This, she believes, may have saved their lives. “I was behind them,” she told knoxnews.com. “That was where the shots went. . . . That's what I hold on tight to even though I don't know for sure—that I moved my kids to safety.”
Both congregations say they have grown from the trauma.
“We learned a lot about ourselves after last year’s tragedy,” said Darwin. “We learned that there’s a difference between what we usually think of as caring for one another by providing casseroles and the real work to be done in tending to one another’s spirits in terms of pastoral care.” In order to provide this pastoral care, Westside formed the lay ministry this past year and now has trained six lay ministers.
TVUUC also formed a lay ministry this past year, a plan that had been in the works but was accelerated after the shooting.
Buice said, “[The shooting] could have broken us apart or it could have broken us open. It broke us open. We’ve deepened our capacity to care for each other. We’ve created a lay ministry program and revitalized our caring committee. We’re having more social events so people can get to know one another and create a culture of mutual support.”
“It’s really brought out the best in our congregation,” he continued. “People have risen to a thousand different challenges. It’s brought out an amazing amount of energy.”
Darwin said that the Westside congregation had established a memorial garden this past year. Linda Kraeger’s ashes were interred there. “Once you begin interring cremains, you’ve really set down some permanent roots,” she said. “That’s a really big growth step for our congregation. We want to be here. We want there to be a memory of our past history.”
Jafarzadeh said, “I think the overarching lesson is about our strength. I don’t know if there’s a limit to our collective strength. When one of us has faltered, there has been someone there to help out. As long as that community can extend itself, we’ll never be weak.”
TVUUC has gained members in the past year, said Ted Jones, last year’s TVUUC president, although it’s been difficult to document because the church just launched a spin-off congregation this past year in Maryville. “We’ve probably gained around 40 members—about the same number we’ve spun off. Numerically we haven’t changed, although we’ve started a whole other congregation.”
Westside has also gained members, although it was already in a growth mode. “We’ve had 20 percent growth in the last two years,” Jafarzadeh said of her 120-member congregation.
Payson said that the outlook for both congregations was positive. “Both congregations have been able to fully mark this anniversary,” he said. “Both have been able to look to their future in meaningful ways. I see the potential growth here as substantive.”
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Jane Greer is a former senior editor of UU World magazine.