TVUUC Shooting: Our Essayists Describe the Aftermath of Terror

Three years after they penned accounts of the TVUUC shootings for Metro Pulse, three of our essayists write updates

Back then, Jennifer Spirko, a thesis/dissertation consultant in the University of Tennessee Graduate School, wrote:

"...My father was shot in the eye, and the doctors say he will lose it. My friend was shot in the head and neck, but she has begun to walk and talk again, to recognize her family, even to talk about work. Their healing will be difficult, but it has begun.

"The rest of us have good days and bad ones. Unexplained moods. Mysterious stomach pains. Weird dreams. Unexpected terrors. The counselors tell us this is all to be expected, that it could go on for months. Mostly, we do just fine, until the power flickers off, as it did Monday, and my kids scream hysterically."


My daughter hates fireworks.

That's not much of a problem, in the grand scheme of things, but on July 4 weekend in rural Blount County, we notice her nervousness.

In fact, three years after our family of four survived the shooting at TVUUC, things like this still show up. I still check out any public place I'm in, almost unconsciously, to see where the exits are. "I could flip that table over, get under that bench," I speculate, almost idly.

Mostly, though, the shooting is a thing of the past. My son, who was 4 then, barely remembers it. My parents and mother-in-law remember it all too well but don't talk about it. My father wears the lasting scars, because he lost an eye that day to a shotgun pellet. Sometimes, he can joke about his eyepatch, tell little kids that he has a parrot at home. Sometimes, he cannot joke about it.

For the rest of us, the invisible, emotional scars are there, but they are less tender. We have not healed, but we have moved forward. For instance, we have made ethical and philosophical commitments to community and to faith. We talk about and against hate speech, about hate in general. We support our church community's commitment to "Stand on the Side of Love." I wonder if we do enough, if we have too easily let the crazy pace of everyday life take control.

We cry and hold each other when events like the tragic Arizona shooting hit the news. And I realize that being caught up in the crazy pace of everyday life is a blessing.

I still sometimes think how lucky we were that day, remembering how I stepped around pools of blood and dozens of scattered, unused shotgun shells.

We are lucky that our worries today are mostly errands, summer reading, ordinariness. Crazy, everyday life is a gift.

Back then, Diane Fox, a UT graphics design teacher, wrote:

"...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'..."


On the day that a man walked into our church and began shooting, two things happened: I lost a good friend and I gained a sense of what it would be like to live in fear. It has taken me these three years to move past my eyes filling with tears each time I hear Greg McKendry's name and to regain a sense of comfort that I lost that day.

When I thought I was going to die, I looked at my life and found it full; of family, friends, students, a church community and a job that I love. It is a wonderful feeling and the lesson from that day that I choose to hold.

There is so much anger and division in the country and the world these days. The shooter was a consumer of books and radio stations that seek to divide and separate people from one another. He saw (and still sees) us as a group of liberals the world would be better without.

Within all religions some version of the Golden Rule, "Do onto others as you would wish them do onto you" exists. Unitarians have a creed that states that "we support the inherent worth and dignity of all people." In Christianity and Judaism there is a belief that "...thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself." In the Buddhist religion it states, "Hurt not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful." In Hinduism:  "One should not behave towards others in a way which is disagreeable to oneself." In Islam "None of you [truly] believes until he wishes for his brother what he wishes for himself." My hope is that we can each get back to following that rule in our daily lives; in the way we treat others and in the decisions we make. And that we can begin to approach each other with open hearts and minds. We have so much to learn if we just listen.

Back then, Beauvais Lyons, a UT printmaking instructor wrote:

"...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."


Almost 20 years ago I taught the "Why Do Bad Things Happen?" curriculum for 4th- and 5th-graders at TVUUC, a course that looks at how different religious traditions explain and come to an understanding of human suffering. I have reflected on this question often since the shootings. While there is an undeniable randomness in life and death, to be fully sentient requires us to make connections, both intellectual and emotional concerning the cause, nature and purpose of the world.

Far from being random, I believe that the conditions that fostered Jim Atkinson's anger can be attributed to a number of systemic factors, including his employment status, his educational background, his personal history and a political climate, most often from the far right, that fosters "2nd Amendment solutions." In this regard, the shooting was not random, but could have been prevented had the conditions of the shooter's life been different.

In the past year I have recalled the shooting as the UTK Faculty Senate, of which I am a member, debated the legislative proposal (SB399) to allow faculty and staff at public universities to carry handguns. Additionally, as a member of the Task Force on Civility and Community at UTK I have reflected on the role of education in helping to advance a citizenry that values difference and respects and participates in democratic processes.

I am proud of my congregation and feel a deeper connection with those who have experienced the shooting. I am also proud of the UUA in its campaign, "Standing on the Side of Love" as a response to the shooting.