A familiar question looms after every mass shooting—the violent, uniquely American phenomenon that has become a grim backdrop of our gun-packing society: “Why?”
In 2008, a shooter in Knoxville was unequivocal in explaining why he burst into the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church with a sawed-off shotgun and opened fire. He killed two, injured six, and left a congregation that had gathered to watch children perform the musical Annie Jr. shocked and traumatized. In a four-page letter found in the shooter’s car, he outlined his deranged reasoning. He professed “a hatred of the liberal movement, liberals in general, as well as gays.”
Though the shooter may have imagined he could silence the voices of a congregation known for its civil rights activism, he achieved the opposite. In the immediate aftermath of the shooting a decade ago, the community of TVUUC rose up together against the hate crime. The greater Knoxville interfaith community came together with gatherings of every faith and political bent, sexual orientation and belief. Just one week later, the Rev. Chris Buice of TVUUC said, “He came into this space with a desire to do an act of hatred, but he has unleashed unspeakable amounts of love.”
The tragedy left an indelible mark on TVUUC. Far from silencing its members and its mission, the shootings instead sparked a legacy of healing and recommitment to serving people who are wounded, marginalized, at risk, under fire.
A new book, Love is the Spirit , recounts the decade-long recovery of the TVUUC community.The author is longtime church member and professional photographer Karen Krogh, who assembled hundreds of photos, reflections, memories, and letters to chronicle “the journey of a courageous and resilient community.” Krogh calls it a “book about healing. An offering of hope for everyone who has ever been harmed directly or indirectly by violence.”
Over the year that followed the shooting, Krogh began photographing the congregation’s healing process, taking pictures at gatherings and services. “Soon I realized that without any real intention, I was documenting a love story, one that needed to be shared,” Krogh writes. “It has taken me many years to find my own courage to bring this project to life.”
The book is dedicated to the loving memory of Greg McKendry and Linda Kraeger, the two people who were killed in the shooting. McKendry, 60 years old, was a member of the TVUUC board and an usher. Kraeger, 61, was a member of Westside Unitarian Universalist Church in Knoxville and had come to TVUUC to attend the play.
Six other adults were seriously injured: Joe Barnhart, Jack Barnhart, Betty Barnhart, Linda Chavez, John Worth Jr., Tammy Sommers, and Allison Lee. Among the letters Krogh includes in the book is one from Chavez, who was in the sanctuary that morning to watch her daughter perform. Upon hearing shots, she pushed her other daughter back, then felt extreme pain. “I raised my hands to hold my head together,” she writes, and she was left blind in her right eye.
‘A man sought to isolate us and alienate us, but our community surrounded us with love.’
Chavez had shared little about the day and about her recovery. But with the ten-year anniversary nearing, she wrote for the book because, “I need to tell my story, especially about my return to a ‘normal life.’ My recovery involved working on my health, mind, and strength.” She spent two years “in a period of numbness and walking around in a haze.” Chavez did not return to TVUUC until a service to dedicate the church library to her friend Linda Kraeger. She eventually gained the strength and resolve to return to college to fulfill a lifelong dream to become a teacher. She graduated, but couldn’t find a permanent job, convinced it was because she was too old or because of her now-crossed eyes. With both her daughters entering college, Chavez began to work with organizations combatting gun violence. She started to speak publicly about her own experience as a survivor. “I don’t have all the answers, but I am doing what I can on gun violence. My new voice is being heard, and I move forward with my recovery. No longer will I be sitting on the sidelines.”
Jim Hartsell was watching Annie Jr. as a friend of the church when the shots rang out July 27, 2008. He formally joined TVUUC after the shooting. He says the violent event altered the lens through which he views the world. “Because of those few minutes, I have a clearer understanding of the word ‘chaos’ and a different sense of the word ‘sanctuary’ than I did on July 26,” he writes.
After the shooting, the church raised a banner with the words that inspired the title of the book: “Love is the Spirit of this Church.” Those are the words that keep Hartsell coming back—the words and the actions of the community to share its financial resources, distribute food to the hungry, engage in small-group ministry, support religious education, and connect with other faith communities. “It’s the knowledge that what this church does is say very clearly, in so many different and meaningful ways, ‘This is where we stand. This is what is important. Tomorrow we will be standing right here, in the same place. You can count on that, and on us.’”
Buice has been senior minister of TVUUC through the shooting and its aftermath. He calls Krogh’s book “a story of resilience and recovery.” One week after the shooting, Buice led a rededication of the sanctuary, depicted in Krogh’s photos. He said, “A man sought to shatter this particular church community and instead inspired an unprecedented reunion of people committed to protecting this beloved community and preserving it for future generations. A man sought to isolate us and alienate us, but our community surrounded us with love.”
For a decade, church members have sung the song “Tomorrow” from the musical Annie, which reminds them that “the sun will come out tomorrow.” They marked the shooting’s first anniversary with an “Instruments of Peace” concert, and committed themselves to healing. They bestowed bravery awards upon the church’s youth for their courage in returning to the scene of horror.
“The crime has not deterred us from our mission,” writes Buice. “In the spirit of Saint Francis we say, ‘Where there is hatred may we bring love.’ You do not have to take my word for it,” he says in praising Krogh’s book about TVUUC’s journey. “These pictures are worth a thousand words.”