I’d like to share the words I spoke at UUCA’s vigil this past Monday, as we held the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church in Knoxville at the center of our thoughts and prayers:
We are gathered here this evening because of a human tragedy. Yesterday, a shooting occurred at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church in Knoxville. Two people died, another 12 or so were treated for minor wounds, and five continue to be in critical condition. The suspect, Jim Adkisson, opened fire inside the church, during a youth performance of “Annie,” at about 10:18 a.m. His only connection to the church seems to be that his ex-wife used to be a long-time member there.
It is a human tragedy, and we gather to bear witness to the sorrows and sufferings that humans are prone to and inflict on each other. Whereas we Unitarian Universalists affirm the inherent worth and dignity of every human being, at times like these we are reminded that inherent worth does not automatically translate to worthwhile action in the world. What is potentially worthwhile may not become actual. Two wolves exist within every breast; one is for good, another is for evil, and life is a journey of making choices about which one of the wolves we feed.
Human tragedy gathers us here together this evening. And we gather in solidarity with our brother and sister Unitarian Universalists across the land, right at this very moment, all across the land, for this tragedy has struck close to home. Some of us have friends at the church in Knoxville—we see them regularly at various national and district events and gatherings, including most recently at the Southeast Unitarian Universalist Summer Institute (or SUUSI).
There is this—and then there is the knowledge that violence profaned and sullied one of our worship services, shattered sanctuary space and time. This in itself is so deeply disturbing. Reverence is so very fragile. Peace is so very fragile.
Finally, you may have heard some of the most recent reports about the suspect Jim Adkisson’s context and motives. The Associated Press reports that he recently received a letter from the state of Tennessee telling him that the food stamps he had been receiving would be reduced or eliminated. Jim Adkisson, already prone to violence in solving his problems—his ex-wife had put out a restraining order on him—was frustrated about being out of work, not being able to get a job. Which he blamed on liberal values and social policies. This is what he did. So he brought all this resentment and all this blame, and he decided he’d take it out on a Unitarian Universalist congregation with a liberal track record—which is so ironic, since last I heard, it’s liberal values and social policies at their best that fight against economic injustice and try to help people like Jim.
It’s a human tragedy, and we bear witness. Whether or not we know people from the Knoxville church, our grief and sadness and anger overflow. It is so hard to comprehend senseless violence on this scale, or the monumental misunderstanding that underlies it.
At times like this, you might find yourself wanting to know as many details about what happened as possible; you may find yourself glued to the TV or to the internet. Others of you may want to get as much distance away from this as you can. People respond to tragedies like this in different ways, and all of these ways of coping are normal.
Please treat yourself and others with care and compassion. It’s also true that a moment like this can trigger memories of times when tragedy visited us and left us feeling out of control in our own lives. The personal impact of a tragedy like this can’t be underestimated. Please treat yourself and others with care and compassion.
Dr. Nadine Kaslow, from the Emory School of Medicine, says that one of the best things that can happen in a messy time like this is to take things step by step. She says, “One of the things you can do is let people talk, let them share their stories, let them talk about what they want, but also sometimes, they’re going to want to be distracted, and that’s okay too. Appreciate that everybody has a different way of responding.”
In a moment, this is exactly what we’ll be turning to. After a time of prayer, Rev. Keller will lead us in a time of sharing, in which we can share our thoughts and our feelings and so begin the work of healing.
But before we get there, though, I need to mention that we gather here this evening not just to bear witness to a human tragedy. We also gather to bear witness to the human spirit at its best, which mourns and rejects violence, which comprehends the violence that it is always capable of and yet chooses the better way of peace, works for peace and justice.
The human spirit at its best, represented by our coming together as Unitarian Universalists, undaunted by the events of yesterday, courageously standing up for our liberal faith and works though they be misunderstood, though they put us in places of risk….
The human spirit at its best, which, with Gandhi, says that “When I despair, I remember that all through history the way of truth and love has always won. There have been tyrants and murderers and for a time they seem invincible, but in the end, they always fall—think of it, always.”
The human spirit at its best, which was so fully demonstrated in the example of one of the Knoxville church members, Greg McKendry, who sacrificed himself so that others might live. Greg McKendry, said a fellow church member, “stood in front of the gunman and took the blast to protect the rest of us.” Another church member made this comment: He “was a very large gentleman, one of those people you might describe as a refrigerator with a head. He looked like a football player. He stood up and put himself in between the shooter and the congregation.”
This is the human spirit at its best—and we gather today to witness this as well. Not to forget it, even as we are faced with the evil that people can do. There are two wolves in my heart and in yours; one is for good, another is for evil, and life is a journey of making choices about which one of the wolves we feed.
Today, we bear witness to the sorrows and the joys of that journey.