It's been three years since gunman Jim Adkisson entered the sanctuary of the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist church and killed two and wounded six before being knocked to the ground.
His heinous act was front-page news for a bit, yielding intense sympathy for the living and the dead among the TVUUC congregation, and summoning questions about gun violence, national character, and the sanctity of church. Then, though, as these things do, the violent act faded from view. What, then, of the people left behind, the congregants, the community, the leadership of TVUUC, left to grapple with flashbacks and intense moral questions—and compelled to move on or disband? On the third anniversary of the attack, we thought we'd revisit not just this tragic chapter in church and local history, but what has happened in the intervening years. How have the victims fared, what has the church become—and how are the children forever set to belt out "Tomorrow" in our collective memories living, now that tomorrow's here?
If you know where to look, you can see them.
Pockmarks, on the back door of the sanctuary at the Tennessee Valley Universalist Unitarian Church on Kingston Pike. Left there July 27, 2008, when Jim Adkisson opened fire on the TVUUC congregation with a 12-gauge shotgun in the opening minutes of a performance of Annie, Jr. He killed church stalwart Greg McKendry, 60, who reportedly threw himself in front of the gunman to protect others in the day's gathering of about 200, most of them children. He also killed a visitor from Westside Unitarian Universalist Church in Farragut, Linda Lee Kraeger, 61, and wounded six others.
Church member Bob Grimac knows where to look, and he says he thinks it's good that the marks, behind a curtain, are still there. "We need to have one physical marking as a remembrance of what happened," he says. "It's good to keep history in mind."
It was a moment that changed everything for this congregation: those who were there amidst the blood and subduing of Adkisson and mass exodus from the building; those like minister Chris Buice who came in in the immediate aftermath; those who were at home sipping coffee or far away on other adventures but still linked to their traumatized brethren.
At first, there were the expected, short-term changes—flashbacks, a need for comforting rituals, fear. "Hundreds of people came to literally hold our hands in the first few days and weeks," says Grimac.
And there were the pragmatic steps a group takes when their sanctuary has been breached by a killer. A security checkpoint at the front entrance for many months, the closing of the second entrance, the one near the children's classrooms; counselors and workshops and deep breaths, with the counseling continuing for years, as needed.
Some parishioners never returned. "It's not a good place for them to be anymore," says Annette Mendola, who was present at the shootings along with her husband, John Nolt, and daughter, Évora Kreis, who was 10 at the time. Mendola came back to services immediately after the tragedy. In an odd development, the numbers attending TVUUC—many for the first time—swelled right after the shooting, then fell a bit as a handful of the traumatized left. Now it's reached a sort of equilibrium with membership right around 500 as it was before the shooting.
A couple of people suffered full-blown post-traumatic stress syndrome. Others got on with their lives very quickly. "Trauma specialists talk about how when you've had this traumatic experience, it's like a film reel, and you've got one frame right there in your face," notes Buice. "Healing is when that frame gradually becomes part of the larger whole, of the story of your life. And some people experience that more slowly."
The church's divorce rate didn't do anything out of the ordinary, notes Buice, but he has the sneaking suspicion that the terrifying act had the effect of increasing what he euphemistically calls "memorial services. These past few years we've had so, so many of those."
One such was held for McKendry's widow Barbara, who lost a battle with cancer in October 2009.
Less dramatic than a hastened death but all pervasive, says Mendola, is the forever-skewed perspective.
"It's not something I think about anymore unless something calls it to mind, like the Gifford shooting," she says. "Any act of violence by a single person. It makes me sad, mostly, not more afraid or more angry. And it colors everything, changes how you experience other difficult transitions, other kinds of loss. Some fellow survivors I see think, ‘I didn't think I could ever live through that again,' and others, ‘I lived through that and it was hard but I have the spiritual resources to live through this, too.'"
Mendola has taken a "big step up, since the shooting and in response to it," by renewing her commitment to teaching Sunday school and joining a new pastoral visitors program formed at TVUUC. "We've been trained as ministerial listeners. Our job is just to be present for people going through difficult times. They don't necessarily need a professional or advice, just someone to listen—once, or once a week for a year."
Grimac says the shooting has made him more committed than ever to combating gun violence in America, particularly here in Tennessee where in the years subsequent to the shooting we've passed gun-friendly legislation, like the law from 2010 allowing people to carry loaded firearms into bars and restaurants that serve alcohol.
Grimac still marvels at his luck—to be polite, he exchanged a seat in the sanctuary 10 or 20 minutes before Adkisson entered. Keeping his spot would have resulted in his blinding or death. "It really made me think about where I sat and for a long time I didn't sit in the spot that had been in the line of fire," he says. "But I guess I'm not thinking about that now because I sat there the other day."
But Jim Adkisson has had a profound and lasting and disturbing effect on Bob Grimac. "I'm now more cautious about some things. He attacked people who I held in high esteem and attacked values that I hold and groups of people I may belong to. I'm more fully aware that people may hate you and want to kill you. I've read about it, heard it on the news, but that just came home to me because of Adkisson."
Sins of the Shooter
The then 58-year-old Adkisson pleaded guilty Feb. 9, 2009, to the shootings, and will spend life in prison. His 2008-09 public defender, Mark Stephens, says that as far as he knows, Adkisson doesn't have any further legal actions in the works, though Stephens isn't officially his legal representative and may not be who Adkisson would reach out to with such plans. In general, the shooter has faded from memory—but not so the words he wrote when he assumed he would perish while committing his crime.
Adkisson's statements are clearly still touching TVUUC congregants—merely mention "the letter" and their views are expressed quickly and succinctly, these 36 months later, like they're just right below the surface. He's provoked soul-searching and doubts and confidence by turns with his handwritten notebook paper branding TVUUC as "a collection of sickos, weirdos + homos," "terrorists allies here in America," people who "embrace every pervert that comes down the pike," and a "white woman having a niger [sic] baby."
Grimac says he knew the gist of the contents, but couldn't resist reading the letter. "It reminded me that there are very disturbed people out there, people full of hate," he says. "I regret terribly that he and anyone else who is disturbed can have a gun."
Buice, the type of minister who gives sermons like "Forgiving the God you May Not Believe In," is okay with Adkisson's life sentence, which he called reassuring "not so much as punishment, but as a protection from this man's actions."
He feels a few qualms about the concept of forgiveness, levened by a joke he tells about the sociologist's version of the parable of the Good Samaritan. "There's two sociologists walking down the road and they see a person beaten and bloodied and one turns to the other and says, ‘The man who did this is sick, we better go help him!'"
"I never really experienced a lot of hatred and animosity," Buice says. "I just had an absence of ill will. Also, a feeling of, can I forgive somebody when Greg McKendry and his family, Linda Kraeger... as a spiritual leader, is it presumptious of me to forgive something that did massive injury; that other people suffered worse?"
Here's what Buice eventually arrived at after reading the transcripts of some interviews with the man he calls "that individual" or Mr. Adkisson: "I just come back to—and maybe this sounds overblown—I just come back to the words of Christ on the cross, ‘Forgive him, he knows not what he does.'"
If other church members have strong feelings, most have transferred them from the shooter to the society that let—no, encouraged—this outrage to happen, a view particularly prominent among congregants like Mendola, a philosophy professor, who are also academics.
"These things don't just happen out of nowhere," she says. "People who do this are living in a really dark place of despair. You don't wake up and say, ‘I could go to the mall and eat ice cream, or I could go shoot into a crowd of people.'"
Liberals, the Next Generation
One counterintuitive reaction to the shooting is an uptick in youth involvement at TVUUC. In the past three years, the Spectrum Cafe for LGBT teens and straight allies has flourished, and the church has recently started a new youth group. Most visibly, the teens are participating in civil rights demonstrations, like a counter-protest to Neo-Nazi demonstrators in August 2010, or a Peace Rally this past April at the Y12 Nuclear Plant in Oak Ridge.
"You'd think the teens would say, ‘That would make me really visible, if I stick my neck out—I might get shot at!' and not join," notes Mendola, whose daughter is 13. "But our teens have really been called to social justice work since this happened. We were really proud of our message at the Nazi demonstration, there with our big banner: ‘Standing on the Side of Love.'"
The youth group isn't all that active this summer, but the church has a lot going on. For the first time since the shooting, for example, they held a summer camp similar to the one that produced the Annie, Jr. play that was interrupted. To avoid sad memories, they won't put on a play at the conclusion, but they are sharing a film they put together at the camp: The Everyone's Equal Project. It includes song and dance numbers, collective art projects, self-portraits, musical performances, interviews and a blooper reel.
They'll be showing it July 27, 2011. Maybe the children will laugh so loud and the film will be so absorbing, people will forget what's behind the curtain on the back door.
Buice wrote in his invitations to church members: "from noon to 5 we will reflect on healing and recovery from a traumatic past. From 6:30 onward, we will appreciate the present, think of the future, and appreciate our resilient children and youth. I invite you to join us."
UPDATED: In regard to the church's July 27 event, let us clarify that this is not an event open to the public, and we have amended the last line to read, "Buice wrote in his invitations to church members...". Minister Chris Buice contacted us to voice his appreciation for all the support shown to the church by the Knoxville community, but to also note that he hopes readers are aware that this is a private function for church members.