The service that day was presented without a minister, so when shots rang out, TVUUC’s Religious Education Director Brian Griffin took charge of the congregation, and was the tragedy’s first interface with the police and its initial spokesperson. Griffin is also an award-winning author and poet. A week or so after the event, he wrote this account of the immediate experience. Never before published, he shares it now.
From July 2008:
When the first shot came, I was in the main hallway, maybe about 30 feet away, walking away from the sanctuary to do a routine check on the nursery. The gunshot was impossibly loud and it remains so. After the first shot I turned back toward the sanctuary, and right then I saw a sight that I have expunged from the paragraph that you are reading. Or maybe I saw this sight a few seconds later, or from a different place a few feet away. I do not know. But I know what it looked like in minute and vivid detail, give or take some things that may or may not have been surrounding it. I will not show you this now. I have told this story to others and tried to show them, but I have come to question it as I told it. But I have no doubt that it is true.
What I can tell you is that children ran out of the sanctuary. I will not describe them. And more children ran out, and a woman with a baby, and there were more gunshots, and many people running, and I immediately began sending children to the Presbyterian church up the hill. I sent all the nursery workers and children there, too. I thought of the Civil War, fought on the very ground the children were running on as they ran up the hill. Suddenly then I was inside the sanctuary, and I am tempted to say I saw the horror, details of the horror. I am tempted to say this because I know that it is true; but I also know that what I “saw” was not seen in the normal sense of seeing, but was instead sucked in, swallowed, absorbed like a gas. I simply pulled everything inside myself the way cameras gather light. I gathered images of the murderer and his work and they have yet to be developed. I gathered Daddy Warbucks. Little Orphan Annie. I can list it all, I can see it all, I can share it, I can’t share it, I can understand it, I cannot understand it, I can, I can’t, I can, I can’t. And later somehow I was outside and everyone was outside and mothers were outside and they were screaming for their children, running for their children, running the wrong way, running, and I suddenly felt the entire thing descend on me. Each scream was intended for me. Each person crying was crying to me. My mouth turned to sand. I ran to the Presbyterian Church. I saw men in suits. I said something. They said something. I ran back to TVUUC. I saw everyone on the lawn. My mouth wouldn’t work. Then suddenly my mouth had moisture in it.
The air was very hot. I thought of the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus speaking to all those people. He must have yelled the Beatitudes. He had to, no way around it: Jesus on a hillside yelling about peacemakers. Yelling about the blessed. Blessed are you when men revile you and persecute you. I remembered my Sunday School teacher at Middle Valley Baptist Church in 1969, Nelka Chandler, perhaps the finest human being who ever lived. She thought Communists would attack us, steal our Bibles. They never did. I once saw a preacher die in a pulpit. I can remember the Beatitudes because Nelka Chandler made me memorize it. That way the Communists couldn’t get it.
That’s why I can type Blessed are you when men revile you and persecute you without looking it up. On the hillside lawn at TVUUC I held my arms in the air and yelled for everyone to stop, to look at me. They did. To my eternal astonishment, they did. I led a prayer, and a moment of silence.
There were cicadas in the trees. Did I lead another prayer? Something about Buddha? Everyone held hands. The police began giving me messages. I yelled out messages from the police.
I became like a machine. I told everyone to go inside. We were “locked in” so we set up counseling rooms. I led more prayer. Many more things happened after that, many many hours of things happening. I became a workaholic and a control freak, but nothing was ever controlled. Everything seemed inadequate. Everything seemed partial, cut short, a start, and everything still does
I wrote this essay—a diary excerpt, actually—in July of 2008. I sent the essay to Metro Pulse that August for its special issue on the shooting at TVUUC, and I have not seen it since. Given the trauma of the time and the nature of my work at the church, I withdrew permission to publish at the last minute. After that, I spent 20 more months in my very full-time role as Director of Religious Education at TVUUC, working with the children and families of a traumatized, loving, and resilient congregation. After those 20 months I took a medical leave. When that leave ended, I chose not to return.
I’ve had many jobs in my life—teacher of creative writing at a university, admissions counselor in an emergency room in midtown Memphis, attendant on a ward for the criminally insane at Central State Psychiatric Hospital in Nashville—but none of those jobs was remotely as stressful, challenging, and rewarding as directing the religious education programs of a Unitarian Universalist church. That was true even before a gunman walked into a worship service and began firing randomly into a crowd that included 100-plus of my Sunday school children and their families. My work got more stressful after that. Even so, I miss that work dearly. I miss making a difference in this city, and most of all, I miss the beautiful people of TVUUC.
While on medical leave I took my first look at the media accounts of what had happened at TVUUC. One thing jumped out at me above all else. According to his neighbors, the murderer Jim David Adkisson thought of himself as a latter day Confederate soldier. When I saw that, the Southern boy inside me leaped to attention and began sharpening pencils. This was the same Southern boy who wrote Sparkman in the Sky and Other Stories and got lucky. Time to do it again, I thought. I knew I could write this story. I knew I had to.
So, for the past few months I have been working on two writing projects about the shooting, both still works-in-progress. One, a nonfiction narrative of what happened that day from my point of view, is called The State of the Confederacy. The other, called The View from the Bloody Pond, is a cycle of linked poems about the shooting and what it might mean. The poems stem from and revolve around the only poem I wrote in the immediate aftermath of the attack, a poem written for cello called “What a Hate Crime Sounds Like.” I had the honor of performing this poem with Andy Bryenton, lead cellist for the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra, at a Valarium fund-raiser a couple of weeks after the shooting. Andy responded musically to each couplet, playing his cello with a probing, trenchant, heart-breaking beauty that sent warm chills through me. To this day the painful lines of that poem and the healing echoes of Andy’s cello remain very much with me—the core of something that I am still working toward, still trying to understand.
At the time of the performance, I thought of that cello as this city, a city pulling together in unity during the painful aftermath of a horrible wrong. Now, as the third anniversary of the shooting approaches, my prayer is for that unity still to be with us, or somehow to return to us, even as time passes and people move on, as people somehow someday must do.
WHAT A HATE CRIME SOUNDS LIKE
By Brian Griffin
"There were about 200 people in the church when the gunman opened fire, church members said.
"Witnesses said that the gunman, carrying a guitar case, had first tried to enter the area where the children were preparing for the play, saying he was there to play music."
—The New York Times, July 28, 2008
The name of this poem is thirteen ways of looking at a guitar case
so without doubt this poem will fail to live up to its name.
June bugs circle the lawn like catgut on a peg, song curled
across confection, seeds without cue -- show that thirteen ways,
I say, show that: I have deep emotion about what hides inside things.
I want to understand the workings of the inner ear, to find out if it is possible
that when he lay in his casket, my grandfather’s hammer, anvil and stirrup
could still shiver to Amazing Grace: I on the pew thinking of baseball
and across the stream the field and the vast woods beyond, and the utter loss
I say show that thirteen ways. Wallace Stevens danced around the heart.
I saw a man lose his heart one morning; the lid of the guitar case hinging open
like a chest, and by that I mean the open chest of a man who lost his heart.
Wallace Stevens danced around the heart and left us grappling with the cruel
shape of words, perfect sight, the open eye unable to blink and turn, the utter loss
and now this gallery of sound, all sound hung in rows like showers of snow.
I on the pew thinking of water striders aloft on the tension of the pond
and below, the vast world of paramecia and amoeba, rotifers and diatoms
and in the casket my grandfather, soundless dot on his disc of snow
and there I say, there I see: no one can walk into a sanctuary and just like that --
safe as we are in alabaster chambers, the poet says, and there the open eye
saying, I cannot, will not, show you to the door where the spirit rises: find it for yourself.
just like that, the door a twilight pond, sun rising, sun setting, air like un-spun wool
saying In this guitar case is whatever you seek; in this guitar case is what you came for,
the lid opening like a dark hard rose, and what you find inside that studied wilt
depends on what you are ready to be: cusp of silence before the sound,
or the sound of the sound becoming a sound: that, or silence as water,
all beneath the pond buffered from thunder: minnows as questions, as air
the choice in the end being false: you choose what you hold in your heart
and you loose from the case what you hold in your fist, opening,
fingers lifting sweet and long like Mary’s at the foot of the cross,
the sound of June bugs circling toward sky on a hot July day:
that sky, that open hand calling you in, calling you sweet in that long, hard song
© Brian Griffin