Full-page ad responds to Knoxville shooting by reaffirming Unitarian Universalism’s open hearts and open doors.
A gunman who said he hated “the liberal movement” killed two people and injured six others during the July 27 worship service at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church in Knoxville before he was overpowered by congregants. A police search warrant said that Jim David Adkisson admitted attacking the church “because of its liberal teachings and his belief that all liberals should be killed because they were ruining the country.”
“We will not give in to fear,” the UUA advertisement read. “We will meet hatred with love. We will continue to work for justice. Our hearts and the doors of our more than 1,000 Unitarian Universalist congregations nationwide remain open. Unitarian Universalists stand on the side of love. We invite you to stand with us.”
The Rev. Dr. Tracey Robinson Harris, the UUA’s director of congregational services, said the ad grew out of a desire to let the wider community know about UU values in the wake of the attack.
Robinson Harris said that the purpose of the ad was to express condolences to the families and friends of those killed and injured, celebrate the bravery of those who subdued the assailant, thank those of all faiths who reached out with support, and to publicly affirm the commitment of the UUA and its congregations to social justice.
“We started thinking about whether there was a message we wanted to share beyond our own UU community,” Robinson Harris said, “to reaffirm the values we hold, and to say that in spite of the tragedy and loss and grief we were not going to retreat from offering open doors and open hearts.”
She added, “We decided that we had something that was worth saying and that the New York Times would be a place to speak publicly in a broad way and do it quickly. We wanted people to know that we, as UUs, have been touched by the tragedies, but the essential nature of who we are remains unchanged. ”
The ad, which appeared on page 9 of the main news section, cost about $130,000, money raised by the UUA’s Stewardship and Development Office from individual donors for this specific purpose. The UUA is currently raising money for additional advertisements in the Knoxville News Sentinel and other papers (See below for link).
Response to the ad has come mostly from UUs and has been generally positive, Robinson Harris said. “People were grateful that we’d used this way to speak out about our values.” A few people, she said, felt it was inappropriate. “It felt to them like taking advantage of a tragic situation.”
The tragedy appears to have generated an increase in viewers for the video “Voices of a Liberal Faith,” a film the UUA released in 2007 as an introduction to Unitarian Universalism. The film was posted to the video-sharing website YouTube last September.
Between September and July 1, a period of about nine months, about 25,000 people had viewed it there, said Valerie Holton, the UUA’s director of marketing outreach. Between July 1 and August 19, a period of seven weeks, it had been viewed about 20,000 times. “I’m sure that after the tragedy a lot of folks went to YouTube,” said Holton. “People became curious about who we are.”
The shooting also prompted a major increase in visits to the Association’s website, UUA.org. On July 14 there were 2,800 visitors to the site, according to Deborah Weiner, the UUA’s director of electronic communications. On July 28 there were 24,670. The UUA’s information technology staff had to triple the memory on the UUA’s web server to accommodate all the visitors, Weiner said.
Weiner said there was a “dramatic up-tic” in the number of people using UUA.org to look for a UU congregation. From July 13 to the day before the shootings, the “Find a Congregation” page on the website had 333 visitors. In the two weeks that followed there were 777 visitors.
Nearly 50 percent of the people coming to the site after the tragedy were new visitors, Weiner said.
Some congregations also reported an increase in visitors after the shootings. The UU Congregation of Phoenix, Ariz., had about 20 visitors on the first Sunday after the shootings. When a service leader commented on the large number of visitors, one visitor told the congregation, “I think many of us are here to stand with you after this tragedy.” Other visitors came to UUCP’s vigil for the Knoxville victims and congregations several days earlier, said the Rev. Susan Frederick-Gray.
Chloe Mason Seagrove, director of membership at All Souls UU Church in Kansas City, Mo., reports that a young woman who was raised Unitarian Universalist but had not been attending church was prompted to return because of the shootings. “She knew this was her community and she had missed it. It is a true gift to have her back among us.”
Mason Seagrove said the number of people filling out guest cards has at least doubled since the tragedy in Knoxville and not all of that can be attributed to “August church shoppers.”
see below for links to related resources, including more information about the UUA’s fundraising effort.
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Donald E. Skinner was the founding editor of the InterConnections newsletter for congregational leaders and a senior editor of UU World from 1998 until his retirement in 2014. He is a member of the Shawnee Mission Unitarian Universalist Church in Lenexa, Kansas.