I knew the gunman who killed two in a Knoxville church, but I don’t need an explanation for his actions. I need stories of heroes and kindness and compassion.
I was sitting with a group of Unitarian Universalists talking about the shooting in Knoxville’s Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church when one person said of the shooter, “He just never had any love.” Never one to err on the side of gracious silence, I snapped, “He most certainly did have love. I know one of the women who loved him, and she loved him fiercely.”
I met Jim David Adkisson several times, once at a wedding in his back yard, and then at SUUSI, the UU summer camp in Virginia, in 1996. His then-wife Liza used to attend the Tennessee Valley UU Church. I am a card-carrying liberal, and I think what David (we called him Jabbo) did was evil. I don’t think he is evil, but the horror he perpetrated on the Tennessee Valley and Westside UU congregations was.
I can’t explain his opening fire during a worship service by saying he wasn’t loved. Five women loved him enough to marry him. I used to look forward to UU summer camp so I could sing with Liza. She loved him fiercely, as I said. They used to talk about how they were soul-twins. He had a family who loved him, too, and he loved them. His mom, his dad, his sister who was a nurse: They loved him. He had good, loyal friends, too. Unfortunately, some of those friends loved drinking and doing cocaine with him.
The day I went to my friend Catharine’s wedding in Jabbo and Liza’s back yard was a lovely day. The wedding was fun, with lots of music and laughing, great tattoos on most of the guests, and lots of drinking. I lit the fireworks during the wedding, stone cold sober, of course.
Fast forward ten years of hard drinking and drug use, losing Liza because of his threats to end her life and his, the paranoia that is the hallmark of cocaine abuse, loss of job after job, the self-righteous scapegoating of “liberals and gays” encouraged by right-wing blowhards, the twist in his heart every time he drove past his ex-wife’s church, and you have, I think, the storm that struck Unitarian Universalists on July 27.
I wish I had a solution to the ills of society. All I have here is a small addition to the conversation among liberals about people who do evil things. Jabbo had lots of choices and lots of chances. Maybe it was brain deterioration from the substance abuse, maybe it was the right-wing hate mongering, maybe it was poor impulse control resulting from a chemical imbalance he was born with. Whatever advantages and disadvantages he started with, he participated with his sovereign free will in making himself what he is today. I think this is more respectful of him and his inherent worth than to imply that he couldn’t help what he did, that he was on some kind of predestined track to disaster.
Sometimes there is brokenness that just can’t be fixed. I’m sorry to say that, but as a minister who worked in the mental health field for twenty years before working full-time at a church, I know that love can’t fix everything. Anyone who has been partnered with someone who becomes increasingly isolated in their own reality, who is ill and refuses treatment, or who is in the grip of addiction—anyone who has tried to love someone enough so they get well—knows that.
Love cannot always be sweet and outreaching. Sometimes love must be challenging. Sometimes it is more loving to leave someone than to stay. It sends them a powerful message that what they are doing is not OK.
Our churches, likewise, can’t help or fix everyone. Living in a covenant community is hard work, and it necessitates our staying on our medication, by which I mean staying in as right a mind as is possible for us. Sometimes a person is not in a place in their life when they have the mental, emotional, and spiritual resources to be part of a covenant community. Covenant communities can be hard on their members, too, because they don’t always work the way they say they want to work. You have to have a certain sturdiness to bear that.
I hear folks say that if Jabbo had come to a UU church, he would have been helped. My friends, he came to UU summer camp as his argumentative, gun-loving, right wing, liberal-blaming self, and he was argued with, of course. He was derided for being part of the Boy Scout organization and for his right-wing views. He felt disrespected and shunned.
We love to think of ourselves as open-minded, but it’s hard for us to be open-minded toward certain people and their views. Maybe it’s just me that has a hard time, but I think I’m not alone in this. I argued with him, too. I do affirm the worth and dignity of every person, but I never promised to affirm the worth and dignity of every idea. Some ideas are oppressive and not well thought out. They lead to violence and injustice and really bad behavior. I try to argue with respect and kindness, but it’s hard when the person you’re talking to acts like a jerk. If I were the Dalai Lama or a UU saint, I would be able to, and I hope that will come in the future, but I am sure not there yet.
I understand wanting to find an explanation for his choice to shoot liberals while a group of their children were performing the show “Annie Jr.” If we can explain it, maybe we feel we have some control in the situation, some understanding of ways to prevent it happening to us. Life is dangerous. It is hard and sweet and adventuresome, full and mysterious, and way, way beyond our control. We do what we can.
I lived in Israel for a time, where we all stayed alert to odd behavior, abandoned packages, money lying on the sidewalk that might be wired to explode when you picked it up, people sweating in the cool air, wearing long coats in the summertime. We are all part of the world, even in our churches, and we need some people to be alert so the rest of us can relax our guard when we gather.
I would like to understand all of the reasons why a person would do something evil, but that’s not a pressing need for me. I’m not sure we’ll ever understand. I think the capability for destruction is within all of us, given certain pressures.
What I do need is to hear stories of courage and kindness. I need the heroes, like Greg McKendry, the usher who people say stepped in front of Jabbo to protect others and died as a result, like the men who wrestled Jabbo to the ground and kept him there. John Bohstedt, one of those men, was playing Daddy Warbucks. He tied Jabbo up with the Daddy Warbucks costume’s suspenders.
I need to hear about the UUA Trauma Response Ministry Team, which has received nothing but the highest marks for its swift, sensitive, and extraordinarily competent work with the traumatized and grieving people.
I need to hear about the churches of Knoxville, liberal and conservative evangelical churches, whose members pitched in with love and compassion, bringing food and caring for people as they gathered.
I need to hear the story of the hotel clerk who gave my friend Jim McKinley, minister of the UU Fellowship of Hendersonville, North Carolina, a discount at his Knoxville hotel when the parking lot attendant saw his Unitarian Universalist license plate holder.
I need to hear about the mayor of Knoxville, who ordered city workers to clean up the crime scene quickly so the congregation could reclaim the sanctuary.
Most of all I love to hear the story of how the cast of “Annie Jr.,” after debriefing with the trauma team, came to Chris Buice, minister of the Tennessee Valley UU Church, fifteen minutes before a worship service on the Monday after the shooting. They asked if they could sing “Tomorrow” again. Jim McKinley and Clark Olsen, who were there, described the children singing with tears on their cheeks, people with lit candles in their hands, unable to clap at the end, lifting the flames high and stamping their feet, whooping and shouting for those kids, for that song, for the knowledge that tomorrow will come.
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The Rev. Meg Barnhouse, a UU World online columnist, is senior minister of the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Austin, Texas, and the author of several books, including Broken Buddha. She is also a humorist and singer-songwriter. (Author’s website.)
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