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 play had begun. The children were adorable, doing an amazing job of putting on Annie Jr. They had worked so hard and now was their moment. With an incredibly loud sound everything changed. The people two rows in font of me fell forward. Had the sound come from them? Another blast and then I turned to see the gun and the unimaginable determination in the eyes of the shooter. Someone shouted “This is real” at the same time that my mind was wrapping itself around the fact that someone was really shooting at us. I hit the floor and tried to wedge my head under the pew. “Not my head” kept running over and over through my brain. A third shot.
People started gently moving toward the exit, scooting on the floor. Hands touching, guiding, but not pushing, in a steady stream. But what would happen if we stood up? Would we be shot beside the wall? I had to trust the others as we moved as one body toward the door. I did not know that while we were moving, our heroes had tackled the shooter to the ground and were holding him until police arrived.
There were many heroes that day. Many have been spoken of repeatedly. We owe them our lives. There were also many more; people who shielded their children, spouses, friends or other loved ones from the bullets; those who rushed to the wounded’s aid; those who comforted the survivors; and so on. Brian Griffin’s (our minister of religious education) calming voice gathered us together on the lawn and kept us informed. And Reverend Chris Buice, who was in Asheville when he heard the news, hopped in his car immediately, cutting short his sabbatical leave, got to us in record time.
My husband, Beauvais Lyons, and I went to the Westside UU gathering that evening and the counseling session and Second Presbyterian Church sermon on Monday. Each day since then we have gone to the church. It may seem odd, but that is the place I have felt the most at peace. It is so filled with love. We are all so moved by the outpouring of love from the community: by the firemen cleaning our space Sunday evening so that we could come back inside right away; by the efforts of the police both on Sunday and since then; by the churches and restaurants who have brought food; by the UU trauma team who came immediately to help us through our grief and fear; by the cards, letters, and flowers that pour in each day and by so much more.
Each Sunday we recite the same words at the end of the service: “Love is the spirit of this church and service is its law. To dwell together in peace, to seek the truth in love, and to help one another, this is our great covenant.” Never have those words sounded so right, so true. We are a church built on the acceptance of difference. Our first covenant is to “accept the inherent worth and dignity of all people.” As one TVUUC 10-year-old said to her mother, “Why didn’t he just come in and sit down? We would have helped him.” Out of the mouths of babes.
Diane Fox teaches graphic design at the University of Tennessee.