On July 27, Knoxville joined a short roster of cities synonymous with sudden, inexplicable violence: Columbine, Blacksburg, Omaha. The shooting of congregants at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church went beyond a nightmarish crime; it’s become another sign of the times, reported around the world as a new example of what America has become. But there were many stories that day, and they ought to be told by the people who were there. Here is one of them. Read more essays and Metro Pulse coverage.
The past three months I have gone to church infrequently, as for much of the summer I have been traveling. The week before July 27th I stopped by TVUUC at least two times, and noticed the building was a beehive of activity, with children and adults rehearsing for their production of Annie Jr. Vicki Masters, our music director, has done a tremendous job in enhancing our music program for both adults and children, and I was looking forward to attending the upcoming Sunday with my wife Diane Fox. Additionally, it was my turn to conduct “UU Conversations,” which is an opportunity for guests to TVUUC to meet someone to answer their questions about Unitarian Universalism in general and our church in particular. I enjoy this experience, and have done this for the past five years or so.
On Sunday July 27th, the sanctuary pews were oriented to allow for a larger staging area for the performance. There were two painted panels representing a brick wall and other props on the stage area. In the minutes before the service began, you could sense the work, effort, and preparation that had gone into the production. As people were settling into their seats it was clear that we would have a large number of attendees, many of whom were relatives and guests of the youth in the performance. Parents held video cameras, and there was a primary videographer positioned on a high platform at the back of the sanctuary.
Whenever I am facilitating “UU Conversations,” I make a special effort to talk to guests before the service, some of whom can be identified by their handwritten nametags. I spoke with a young family for whom this was their fourth visit to the church, noting that their daughter, who was wearing a bright red dress with a bow in her hair, “loves Annie” and wouldn’t miss this event. I also noticed another young family, the mother who was in her third trimester of pregnancy sitting in the row in front of us to our right. I learned later that they were first-time visitors to TVUUC, and I have thought about them often since then, hoping they will return for love and support.
People, even liberal Unitarian Universalists, tend to be somewhat conservative in their seating practices. We are all creatures of habit, and while I have made a conscious effort to sit in other parts of the sanctuary on Sunday morning, most often my wife and I can be found sitting three rows back in the east pews. We both like it because the morning sun is often streaming through the windows, bathing us in its light. I have spoken to others who enjoy the view of the tree-covered hill out of the east windows when seated on the opposite side of the sanctuary. Our friends, both regular and infrequent visitors to TVUUC, know where we tend to sit. Some of these friends were alarmed when they saw the sanctuary diagram of the incident printed in the News Sentinel on Monday following the shootings. They knew how close we were to being shot in this terrible act of violence. I think often of the people who were sitting around us, particularly those visiting TVUUC. They were our guests, and I feel responsible to them.
In looking back on the incident, I am particularly proud of how we worked together to respond to the tragedy as it was happening, from stopping the gunman and caring for the victims to consoling and supporting each other. As many of us fell behind the pews and then exited from the sanctuary, we seemed to move in unison, gently leading each other to safety with no bottlenecks at the doors. We could have never imagined an angry gunman coming into our house of worship, and yet we responded as if we had rehearsed this drill several times before.
As I mourn for the victims and their families, I also feel blessed to be part of a community that stands on the side of love and compassion.
Beauvais Lyons teaches printmaking at UT, and his work in other media is in the collections of major galleries around the country.