Knoxville congregations, UUs nationwide reaffirm openness after July 27 attack.
A deadly shooting during a Sunday morning church service in Knoxville sent shock waves through the Unitarian Universalist world this summer.
Jim David Adkisson, 58, entered the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church (TVUUC) with a shotgun on July 27 as a children’s performance of the musical “Annie Jr.” was beginning. He opened fire on the audience, killing TVUUC board member and usher Greg McKendry, fatally injuring Linda Kraeger, and injuring six others before members of the congregation tackled Adkisson and held him for police. (See tributes to McKendry and Kraeger, page 40.)
Unitarian Universalists throughout the country responded with shock that turned to dismay when Knoxville Police Department Chief Sterling P. Owen IV said the next morning that Adkisson had left a four-page letter in his car that described his “hatred of the liberal movement, liberals in general, as well as gays.” Owen also said that Adkisson blamed the liberal movement for his failure to get a job.
A search warrant for his home stated that Adkisson told 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.
TVUUC is well known in Knoxville for its support of equal rights for the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender community, women, and people of color. It sponsors the Spectrum Diversi-Tea & Coffee House for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender teens. In 2006, TVUUC’s youth group joined Spectrum members in organizing a demonstration in a Knoxville park after two same-sex teens were harassed for holding hands.
UU leaders quickly reaffirmed the openness of UU congregations and their commitment to social justice. “We will not give in to fear,” said a full-page advertisement the UUA published in the New York Times on August 10. (See page 42.) “We will meet hatred with love.”
Although police have not yet released the full contents of Adkisson’s letter, the gunman may not have picked out TVUUC simply for its liberalism. He was married for ten years to Liza Anderson, who used to attend the church and who divorced him in 2000 after obtaining a restraining order that alleged he threatened to kill her. When they were still married, Adkisson and Anderson had attended the Southeast Unitarian Universalist Summer Institute (SUUSI) at least once in the mid-1990s.
Adkisson’s trial has been scheduled for March 2009.
About 200 members of TVUUC, the Westside Unitarian Universalist Church, and people from the larger community had gathered in the TVUUC sanctuary for the performance of “Annie Jr.” by approximately 25 children in the church’s summer musical theater workshop.
John Bohstedt, a retired history professor and longtime member of TVUUC, was playing the role of Daddy Warbucks in the play and was waiting for his cue when Adkisson opened fire. “At first many of us thought it was some new sound effect or element that had been added to the suspense,” Bohstedt said. “Then he fired the second shot and people started screaming.”
Bohstedt and several other men rushed at Adkisson after the second shot, pinning him to the ground and tying his ankles with a nylon jacket until police arrived.
Bohstedt said that the children fled to the Second Presbyterian Church next door. “They took these kids in and locked down the building,” Bohstedt said. “Then, as soon as the police had arrived and cleared up the scene, [the Presbyterians] came back over to bring ice and water and loving care and whatever they could to aid us while the police were organizing their investigation.”
No children were wounded in the attack. The six shooting victims who survived were Westside UU Church member Joe Barnhart, 76, and his daughter, Linda Chavez, 41; Joe’s brother, Jack Barnhart, 69, and his wife, Betty Barnhart, 71; John Worth Jr., 68; and TVUUC member Tammy Sommers, 38. Allison Lee, 42, was injured while crawling to safety.
Second Presbyterian hosted a candlelight vigil for the grieving UUs the evening after the assault. “Tonight is a hopeful gathering, even though it’s in the midst of tragedy,” said UUA President William G. Sinkford at the vigil. “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.”
“There is power in this room,” the Rev. Chris Buice, TVUUC’s minister, said at the vigil. “The presence of many people of so many different faith traditions and ideas being here to support our church means so much to us.”
About 40 percent of the 1,000 who attended were simply members of the community, according to Bill Dockery, a TVUUC spokesperson. Other prayer services were held in Knoxville to express support for the UU congregations, and hundreds of UU vigils were scheduled throughout the country.
As a finale at the vigil, 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.
Sinkford traveled to Knoxville the day after the shooting, but members of the UUA Trauma Response Ministry flew to Knoxville within hours of the attack. UUA district executive Annette Marquis also traveled to Knoxville to help.
Ted Jones, TVUUC’s new president, credits the ministers from the UU Trauma Response Ministry team for helping both churches process the event and begin recovery. “They helped us through the immediate crisis and set up interventions for individuals with severe trauma,” he said. “They met with church leadership individually, giving them recommendations on a global scale: what to look at in the next few months, what to look at in the next year.”
“I want to say thank you,” said Jones. “In the midst of everything, someone put up a map and put a sticker on every place we had received a message of support or letter or email from. And the map was just covered!”
Jayne Raparelli, the congregation’s past president, said that TVUUC members “have risen to the occasion, whatever their gifts.”
“It has brought out the absolute best in us,” Raparelli continued. “It’s made me very proud to be a Unitarian Univeralist, and I don’t think I’m alone in saying that.”
Buice, TVUUC’s minister, reflected on the outpouring of support TVUUC received: “We thought it was about us,” Buice said. “What we discovered was that it was about the entire Knoxville community. Our children were their children. We had people show up for the [memorial service July 28] from the Tibetan Buddhist Center, from the synagogues, the local mosque, and a wide variety of Christian churches.”
“The people who have come to feed us,” he continued, “come from churches you’d consider conservative, liberal, and everything in between. But they fed us and loved us and didn’t discriminate on the basis of race or sexual orientation. It’s been a reflection of overwhelming, overpowering love.”
Raparelli said that as president she would sometimes hear people questioning the dues that the congregation paid to the UUA. “I would venture to say that we now know more the value of being part of the UUA and the Thomas Jefferson District.”
Buice agreed. “The UUA, Bill Sinkford, the UU trauma team, and Annette Marquis have earned all of the dues we’ve paid since 1949,” he said. “Unquestionably.”
One week after the rampage, 800 members and friends, including several former ministers of the congregation, returned to TVUUC to rededicate their sanctuary.
“This sanctuary, which has been defiled by violence, we rededicate to peace,” Buice said in his homily. “This holy place, which has been desecrated by an act of hatred, we reconsecrate for love.” Buice concluded his remarks standing on the spot where the violence began, as the congregation sang “Tomorrow.”
A week later, grieving members of the Westside Unitarian Universalist Church stood before their congregation and tore apart a shirt in a ceremony honoring the shooting victims from their church. Nathan Schulman and fellow worship committee member Sue Draper tore a T-shirt that bore the Westside logo and the signatures of many church members in the August 10 worship service.
Schulman said that the torn shirt will be displayed in the sanctuary for about a year. Then, the shirt will be coarsely mended, using thread of a contrasting color. “The shirt will be usable again, but it will never be the same as it was before,” he said, “just as our community will never be the same as we were before.”
“It’s a graphic and violent act to tear the fabric of a shirt,” said the Rev. Mitra Jafarzadeh, Westside’s minister. “But with the mending of the shirt there’s a corresponding promise that there will be healing.”
The UUA and the Thomas Jefferson District set up a Knoxville Relief Fund, which has collected $159,000. The money will be used “to bring ministry, spiritual care, and practical financial assistance” to the victims, their families, and others affected by the attack. The district will administer the fund.
While relief has been welcome, processing it has required more of the congregation than they expected. “We’ve had to set up a whole separate organizational structure to handle relief efforts,” said Jones. “We have a group of people trying to assess the physical victims’ needs.” He said the congregation has also contracted with a specialist in emotional trauma.
One unintended effect of the publicity garnered by the shooting has been increased attendance at TVUUC. “Attendance at church school is up by 15 percent from last year,” Jones said. “The same is happening with our adult attendance. It’s up by about 20 percent.”
“We were on the cusp of being a 500-member church,” Jones said. “Now we’re having to plan as if we’re going to be a 600-member church.”
Another unexpected result has been closer relations between the five Knoxville-area UU congregations. “The regional community of UU churches has really extended itself in hospitality,” said Lorraine Darwin, Westside’s Green Sanctuary chairperson. “Even though the newspapers have gone away and the media has gotten their story, the true story lays in how we’re coming together and redefining ourselves as a region.”
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Jane Greer is a former senior editor of UU World magazine.
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.