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Their spirit is still with us

One year after a gunman opened fire in the Unitarian Universalist church in Knoxville, the congregation’s minister reflects on the spirituality that has sustained his people.
By Christopher Buice

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Grier Novinger, Ted Jones, and the Rev. Chris Buice sing together (Karen Krogh)

At the end of a worship service July 26, 2009, marking the anniversary of a deadly shooting in their Knoxville church, church president Grier Novinger, former president Ted Jones, and the Rev. Chris Buice sing "Lift Every Voice and Sing" together. (Karen Krogh)

Susan B. Anthony campaigned tirelessly throughout her adult life for equal rights for women. She worked for justice and equality. Once a reporter asked her if she ever prayed, and she replied, “I pray every single second of my life, not down on my knees, but with my work. Work and worship are one to me.” For some folks, in her day and ours, working for justice and equality are forms of worship. Distributing pamphlets, writing letters to the editor, organizing campaigns are all forms of worship. She and many others live out the affirmation, “Love is the doctrine of our church and service is our prayer.” This is our spirituality.

My church, the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church in Knoxville, has an activist streak. We have been active in many areas of social justice and environmental responsibility. Our role in the community has often been that of a respected oddity. We like to think of ourselves as a community of the creatively maladjusted, always working for change.

On Market Square in Knoxville is a statue of Lizzie Crozier French, who is thus honored for her suffrage work, which was integral to gaining women the right to vote. She tried to start a Unitarian church in town in the 1920s. It didn’t take, but her spirit is still with us.

Our current church was founded in 1949 in the segregated South. In our first year, a gray-haired African American man in wire-rim spectacles named Jim Person walked up to a sign in front of the place where our congregation was meeting. He pointed at a sign that said, “Everyone Welcome,” and asked, “Does that sign mean me?” The usher said, “Yes it does.” The congregation voted to defy the segregation laws, lost their lease, and had an article headlined in the local paper: “Red Question raised about Unitarians.”

This experience led to a long-term commitment to the civil rights movement, including active participation in the sit-ins. This year our church added a permanent plaque that has those words on it—“Everyone Welcome”—and a rainbow flag. Jim Person is no longer living, but his spirit is still with us.

In more recent times, two young men, a teenage couple in our youth group, complained about being harassed for holding hands in a public park. So our church hosted a “Holding Hands Rally” downtown. The youth held hands and the adults surrounded them holding hands. I held hands with the local United Church of Christ minister, the Rev. John Gill, and we both kind of wondered what our wives would think if that made it into the newspapers. The rally was held just a few feet from where the Lizzie Crozier French statue now stands, and when we all walked around the block holding hands we passed the theater and the restaurants where our members were once part of the sit-ins.

Many of our forebears are no longer living, but their spirit is still with us.

Every church has a hymn that it likes to sing in worship and can sing better than all the others. In my church in Knoxville, that hymn is “May Nothing Evil Cross this Door.” On July 27, 2008, evil did cross our doors. A man walked into the sanctuary of our church carrying a gun in a guitar case, pulled out that weapon, and fired into a congregation of unarmed men, women, and children as children were performing a musical play. Two people were killed, Greg McKendry and Linda Kraeger. Eight were injured. All of our community was traumatized.

On that morning people prayed with their actions. One man, Arthur Bolds, told me later that, as he ran toward the shooter to tackle him, he felt he was praying with every muscle, praying with every fiber of his being, that he would get there in time to save some lives. He did. His work was his worship that morning.

Our church is known for its commitment to peace. John Bohstedt, the first man to reach the guy and tackle him, was a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War. This made quite an impression in our community. When Jamie Parkey, another one of the tacklers, went back to work the next week, one of his more conservative coworkers looked at him and said, with just the right amount of dark humor, “What kind of loser gets his butt kicked by a bunch of pacifists?”

On that tragic Sunday morning, others prayed with their work as well. Ann Snyder was not physically hurt, but she was holding a script for the play Annie Jr. that was peppered by shotgun blast. She still had the composure to move the children of the play to safety.

Brian Griffin, our director of religious education, worked energetically and effectively to evacuate all children from the RE area of the church. They found sanctuary with our Presbyterian neighbors—in some cases passing children over a chain-link fence.

Janet Buckner, who had hitherto been known to most of us as the Green Lady, the environmental activist, began to utilize her Red Cross skills on the spot to coordinate an intergenerational trauma response. That trauma response would last for months, but it began at the very first instant.

Tammy Sommers, a mother of two small kids, was injured badly that day. She was in a coma, and I did not even recognize her when I saw her in the hospital. She had a six month recovery before she could go back to work. I remember the day she walked back into that sanctuary for the first time. A miracle in the New Testament is Jesus walking on water; a miracle in my lifetime has been watching Tammy Sommers and others walk into that sanctuary without bitterness or resentment or anger but overflowing with gratitude for her congregation and for life.

I was not in the room when the shooting happened, but I did get there as quickly as I could. I was two hours away in Asheville, North Carolina, on my last week of sabbatical. Just the night before, I had been sitting with my friend the Rev. Mark Ward, the Asheville minister who was hosting me, when he asked me how my break from work was going and I said (and there is irony here), “The best thing about a sabbatical is they can’t call you back unless it’s a big emergency.” Then I added, “However, I know if something happened like it did in Blacksburg I would be back in an instant.” (The reason I would say such a thing is that my friend and colleague, the Rev. Christine Brownlie, was on sabbatical from her congregation in Blacksburg when there was a shooting at Virginia Tech, so I had thought that kind of situation through.) The next morning, on July 27, I answered the call on my cell phone and heard the news: “Chris, there has been a shooting at the church. It’s bad.” I drove as fast as I could through the mountains to get back home; in many ways my role has been that of a spiritual first responder.

Before I left Mark’s house, I turned to him and said, “Call Annette Marquis (our district executive) and tell her to notify the Trauma Response Team.” I will be forever grateful to the UUA Trauma Response Team for their quick action. They came from all over the country to support us, console us, and sometimes protect us from an overzealous media. One of my favorite moments is when the Rev. Rosemary Bray McNatt chased a film crew out of our sanctuary like Jesus chasing the moneychangers out of the temple.

On the night after the shooting we gathered at Second Presbyterian, the church next door. UUA President William G. Sinkford flew in to be with us. He spoke with us that evening, a calm presence in the midst of a storm. We were anticipating it would only be us, members and friends of TVUUC, but the community rallied to our side—every variety of Christian church, the Jewish community, the Muslim community, the East Tennessee Rationalists. There were people standing in aisles, sitting crowded around the altar, standing outside in the rain.

Just before the service, the kids from the cast of Annie Jr., the play that had been interrupted by the shooting, came up to me and said, “We want to sing in this service!” I was surprised by their energy and commitment, so after conferring with Vicki Masters, our music director, we sent someone running through the rain to get the music. The song was not in our order of service but we decided we would do it at the end, if we did manage to get the music. After the closing words, I looked at Vicki and she nodded, and then hit the opening chords, and the children and youth began singing, “The sun’ll come out tomorrow,” and the entire community rose to its feet and joined in. And at that moment I truly felt like I was present at the creation, the dawn of new light. The healing had begun. Our children were and continue to be leaders in our healing.

After the shooting, we quickly decided as a congregation that we would not let this event stop our church from moving forward, so we planned a sanctuary rededication worship service for the very next Sunday.

Nathan Paki had been the head of the ushers on the Sunday of the attack and had assigned Greg McKendry his place. That whole week Nathan had been struggling with survivor’s guilt and “what ifs.” On that Sunday of the rededication I walked into the sanctuary and saw Nathan standing at Greg’s post passing out the orders of service. It was one of the most important moments of the entire service for me.

At the end of the worship service I said this prayer:

God of many names, known in the spoken word and felt most profoundly in unspoken silence, we say with you and in you and through you these simple words: We reclaim our sanctuary. This sanctuary, which has been defiled by an act of violence, we rededicate to peace. This holy place, which has been desecrated by an act of hatred, we reconsecrate for love. This sacred space, which has seen death, we recommit to life. This holy spiritual home, which has known fear, we rededicated to faith and freedom.

A lot has happened since that day. On our sixtieth anniversary in February we dedicated two rooms in memory of Greg McKendry and Linda Kraeger. The fellowship hall is named for Greg because he loved to cook and eat. When I asked the McKendry family what readings Greg would have wanted at his own memorial service, his son Brian said, “Do you have any good recipes?”

Greg also had a hand in countless interior decorating projects; throughout the building there are touches of Greg. Now let me say this, if you want to say something controversial in my congregation, don’t make a radical political statement, because that won’t be enough. Don’t say something polarizing in the area of theology, because that won’t be enough. Instead, all you need to do is walk into any room and say, “I think this room would look nice with a different color of paint.” That will do it. Greg helped us navigate through many such controversies.

Anyone familiar with trauma recovery will be aware that there is often more than one version of a story of what happened. Some say that Greg intentionally took the brunt of the first shot. Others saw that he was caught unawares. I was not in the room but I do have an opinion. Greg was a hero before July 27. Greg used to stand at the doors of the church on the nights our congregation hosted Spectrum Coffee House, a social group serving teens across the gay-to-straight spectrum. He was there ostensibly as a greeter, but he was also prepared to be a bouncer should anyone attempt to enter the building who might want to make trouble. He was a big bear of a man, a large protective presence standing vigil to ward off the bullies of the world. Greg is no longer living, but his spirit is still with us.

The library is named for Linda Kraeger because she was a writer. Linda was a guest in our church from the Westside Unitarian Universalist Church. She was an author with a quirky sense of humor. She once wrote a book about early Christianity. When her minister, the Rev. Mitra Jafarzadeh, asked her to describe the early Christians, she simply said, “They were different.” That’s it. That’s all. She was an academician with a Texas twang and colorful style. With her academic colleague Joe Barnhart she wrote other books, one a historical novel about Roger Williams and the emergence of the concept of religious liberty in our country.

Margaret Fuller once said to Emerson, “I love to be in your library when you are not present. There is so much soul there.” I feel that way about the Kraeger library. I did not know her, but as I gaze at the books she loved to read—many books by and about Shakespeare, Dostoevsky, Dylan Thomas, Cervantes—I do get a sense of the person. Linda Kraeger is no longer living, but her spirit is still with us. The fellowship hall and the library give us a chance to continually remember Greg McKendry’s heart of gold and Linda Kraeger’s mind on fire.

It has been one year since that Sunday. I am often asked how I am doing in the area of forgiveness. And I’ll have to be honest and say that the question can feel intrusive, especially if I feel like someone is trying to speed up my spiritual progress. For I believe forgiveness is about a healed heart, not an enforced timetable.

Sometimes forgiveness is more of a journey than a destination. We do not control the timetable for this process, but we can cooperate with it. The man who attacked my church is in prison, but we do not have to be. We can commit to a journey and move toward that day when we will be able to say, in the words of the old African American spiritual, we are free at last.

Sometimes I am asked how my spirituality has helped me through this year, and I will harken back to the day when I was a new UU in a “Build Your Own Theology” class. Class members were asked to complete an exercise where we wrote our own personal definition of the word “God.” We were not obligated to complete the task. We could have opted out, but I decided to go with it. However, I share this story with some humility, knowing my definition may not be yours.

(I am reminded of the story of a group of Unitarian Universalists who were having a disagreement about theology. They decided to go to God to see if God could settle their dispute. Of course, there was a line waiting to see God, so the UUs had to wait for their turn. The first two people in line were a Protestant and a Catholic from Northern Ireland, and they asked, “God, will we ever have peace between the Protestants and the Catholics in Northern Ireland?” And God said, “Yes, but not in your lifetime.” The second two people were a Muslim and a Jew from the Middle East, and they asked, “Will there ever be peace between the Muslims and the Jews in the Middle East?” And God replied, “Yes, but not in your lifetime.” Finally the group of Unitarian Universalists came before God and asked, “Will there ever be a time when we can get all Unitarian Universalists to agree on theology?” And God replied, “Yes, but not in my lifetime.”)

And so here is my definition, shared with no expectation of unanimity. These are the words I wrote: “Whenever two or more gather to love, support, and encourage each other, there is a power greater than ourselves that can renew, restore, and sustain us. That is my definition of God.”

I believe that power has been present with my congregation every step of the way on our journey. Other people might prefer a different word to describe the same experience and I am open to that. Some may prefer to leave this power unnamed and I am sympathetic to that position. As the Tao Te Ching says, “Those who know don’t say. Those who say don’t know.” Of course, if I took that phrase literally I’d be out of a job, but I do appreciate the spirit of it.

The composer Leonard Bernstein was once asked if he believed in God and he said, “No. I believe in something much larger.” Spirituality is about something larger than our creeds, larger than our doctrines or dogmas, higher than our highest thoughts. It is about a freedom that is greater than any that can be guaranteed by a social contract or a political arrangement. It is about living for the day when we will be able to “lift every voice and sing, till earth and heaven ring, ring with the harmonies of liberty.” We may not think the same thoughts but we can share a common spirituality. We may not hit all the same notes, but we can sing in harmony. So, as Tony Turner sings in “Circle of Song”:

Come, join with me in the circle of song
The young and the old, the weak and the strong
Singing with one voice though we may speak different tongues
In the circle of song we are one.

In the life of the spirit, in our common humanity, we are one.

Adapted from Chris Buice’s theme talk “Lift Every Voice and Sing” at SUUSI, the Southeast Unitarian Universalist Summer Institute,” July 20, 2009. Lyrics from “Lift Every Voice and Sing” by James Weldon Johnson; lyrics from “Circle of Song” ©1994, 2002 by Tony Turner, reprinted by permission.

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