UUA president delivers message of hope one day after shooter's rampage in Unitarian Universalist church.
“Tonight is a hopeful gathering, even though it’s in the midst of tragedy,” said Sinkford, president of the Unitarian Universalist Association, at a candlelight vigil held at Second Presbyterian Church in Knoxville, next door to TVUUC. “There is no capacity that we need more than the ability to come together as people of faith across the boundaries of theology and liturgy and practice.”
The vigil brought together members of TVUUC and Westside UU Church, Second Presbyterian, and representatives from many area religious groups. About 40 percent of the 1,000 in attendance were simply members of the community, according to Bill Dockery, a spokesperson for TVUUC.
Police say Jim David Adkisson, 58, fired three shotgun blasts at the beginning of a children’s performance of Annie Jr. at TVUUC on Sunday morning, July 27. Greg McKendry, a TVUUC trustee and usher, was killed immediately. Linda Kraeger, a member of Westside UU Church, died Sunday night at an area hospital. Seven other people were injured, including people from both congregations. Two of them remain in serious condition. Members of the congregation tackled and subdued Adkisson before he could reload his gun. None of the children were injured, although several witnessed the attack.
At a Monday morning press conference, Knoxville Police Chief Sterling P. Owen IV reported that a four-page letter had been found in Adkisson’s car in which he professed hatred of “the liberal movement.” A search warrant for his home stated that Adkisson told police investigators that “he had targeted the church because of its liberal teachings and his belief that all liberals should be killed because they were . . . ruining the country,” according to WBIR in Knoxville.
Although Adkisson appeared to have no connection to the congregation, he had been married to a woman from 1990 to 2000 who later belonged to the church for several years. In filing for divorce, Liza Alexander said that Adkisson drank heavily and threatened to kill her and himself.
“There is power in this room,” the Rev. Chris Buice, TVUUC minister, said at Monday’s vigil, according to the Knoxville News Sentinel. “The presence of many people of so many different faith traditions and ideas being here to support our church means so much to us.”
Other speakers at the service included the Rev. Mitra Jafarzadeh, minister of Westside UU Church, and the Rev. Rosemary Bray McNatt, minister of Fourth Universalist Church in New York City and co-chair of the UU Trauma Ministry team, who traveled to Knoxville to assist the congregation with other members of the team.
The congregation at Monday’s service sang hymns beloved by UUs, “Spirit of Life” and “My Life Flows On In Endless Song.” As a finale, the children whose performance had been interrupted by the shooter returned to sing “Tomorrow,” the well-known song from the musical Annie. They were accompanied on the piano by Vicki Masters, TVUUC’s minister of music, who had organized Sunday’s performance and who was instrumental in getting the children to safety during the incident.
Ted Jones, TVUUC’s president, described the service as “powerful and healing” in a newsletter sent to church members on Tuesday. He acknowledged the long road of healing ahead by quoting Masters: “It’s not done but it’s started.”
Among the greatest problems facing the congregation is dealing with national media attention. Bill Dockery, a long-time journalist, volunteered to act as the church’s spokesperson and media liaison. He is working with McNatt and District Executive Annette Marquis to develop a consistent message, especially in response to media speculation about the shooter’s motivation. “I made everyone focus on what we ourselves (as the church) knew and what we could say for ourselves,” Dockery wrote in an email, “and had them refuse to speculate or talk about topics that were outside the church’s expertise.”
Dockery praised the Knoxville police for their quick and professional response after the incident. “They arrived within three minutes,” he said. “They have been extremely gracious.” Dockery also had praise for the city of Knoxville, which arranged for a thorough cleaning of the sanctuary after the police were finished at the crime scene.
Despite the traumatic events of the past Sunday, the congregation still plans to move forward. “We’re not closing our doors. We’re not putting metal detectors at the doors. We’re not having armed police at the doors,” Dockery said. “We’ll be open for business on Sunday.”
Unitarian Universalists throughout the world have responded to the attacks with an outpouring of grief and support. Over 160 UU congregations have already held or plan to hold services of remembrance or other activities honoring the shooting victims. The UUA and the Thomas Jefferson District have set up a relief fund.
see below for links to the relief fund, a guide to vigils and memorial services, and other resources.
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Jane Greer is a former senior editor of UU World magazine.