The first few minutes for a visitor at a Trappist monastery are pretty special. The member monks and priests subscribe fully to the line of teaching that when Christ returns, He will present Himself as a stranger in need. You briefly get the benefit of the doubt. Once they sniff out your humanity, you are left to your own devices.
This week marks a year’s passing since the shooting at Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church on Kingston Pike. Two people were killed, and six were wounded. Plainly, everyone in attendance was wounded. Everyone with a connection to that church or a church or another person was wounded. If and how those wounds can be healed remains an important question. Becoming accustomed to absence, pain, or unspeakable emotions and unpleasantness is not the same as moving beyond them.
There is the sense that the 21st century might be off to a better start if some object of worship long ago had articulated that He or She would return in the form of the opposite—with regard to education, means, life skills, appearance, etc.—of the first human He or She encountered. At present there is too little incentive to look for some spark of holiness, however dim, in those we are uncomfortable looking at, for whatever reason.
Last July reminded us of the best and worst of which we are capable. There was heroism and compassion and empathy. There was hate and confusion and murder. It is clear that we remain capable of all those things, the best and the worst. Last July reminded us that when a group of people comes together in one room or one city, there is no us or them. There is only we. And we are all we have. As long as guns have cash value, they will be manufactured and sold in America and no amount of legislation can keep them safely away from each of us. (Indeed, Tennessee has moved in the opposite direction during this summer’s festival of expanded rights for gun-owners.) As long as companies and individuals continue to purchase advertising on radio and television pseudo-news programming that emphasizes and exploits the differences between us and encourages mistrust over harmony, that noise and those susceptible to its influence will be cause for concern. As long as people buy and read books fomenting fear of the other, they will be generated and published and present among us. As long as the film and television industries are rewarded for fabricating fictions that make violence seem chic and without consequences, they will continue to enrich themselves and theater-owners and broadcasters by showing them to the young and impressionable for whom we care and increasingly rely upon.
Knoxville has reached out with caring and kindness to those most damaged by the events of last July. But Knoxville appears not to have interrupted its schedule of gun shows. Establishing his stance as a gubernatorial candidate, our formerly gun-shy mayor has joined the National Rifle Association. Commercial rant radio and television seem undiminished, grateful for topics such as this one to help them appear legitimate and purposeful. I know from these pages that there is no end of make-believe murder and ruin for sale at the theaters. And efforts labeled with words like homelessness and social services continue to have too much in common with corralling and concentration. This is not news.
I did not live in Knoxville last July 27. But I had lived here before and I was here, that day, window-shopping for real estate in preparation for moving back. I drove by TVUUC less than an hour before the chaos there. As always, I imagined my handful of friends and acquaintances inside. As always, I enjoyed thinking about this congregation’s decision to make fine art created by local artists a part of their experience in that building—the demonstration that ultimately we decide what is sacred in our lives. I was tempted to stop and enter but did not. Last Friday I was driving on Kingston Pike, which is not usually part of my travels. I was distracted by something—probably conversation or music—and felt the car I was driving shudder. I looked up and saw the banners on the church’s lawn.
I perceive the turbulent energy that radiates from that place—and the big-hearted attention it is once again receiving—as a challenge. Each of us is surrounded by strangers in need, even if some of them happen to be better off than us by bank and mall standards. Even if they sport and parrot slogans aimed against our way of life or way of thinking. Even if they look and sound nothing like us. Each of us is capable of generosity and its opposite. If you can sustain contact with a stranger long enough to acknowledge what makes him or her worthy of your generosity, if you can extend yourself and what you know and what is precious to you to those you may not immediately comprehend, we will have healed some measurable bit. If you can remove just one of the many obstacles to mutual understanding, the imaginary barriers to caring that misled a criminal to believe he was so different from his victims, we will all have healed some measurable bit.
Be the tree that rises above this frail and divided world.