Stand by Me

Denominations disregarded, Knoxville's faithful light candles for Unitarian church shooting victims—and for hope

A clap of thunder, loud and strong, has interrupted Rev. William Sinkford, president of the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations (UUA), but he doesn't skip a beat.

"We don't know who's speaking outside," he says as though he planned the special effect. "But we trust, we have faith, that it is a friendly voice."

That gets a pleasant laugh from this crowd that packs the pews, the sanctuary, even the choir loft and the narrow aisles along the walls lined with stained-glass windows here at the Second Presbyterian Church on Kingston Pike. They've braved a thunderstorm that started stirring about half an hour ago to be here at a candlelight vigil for the next-door neighbors—the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church—where a gunman opened fire during a children's performance of Annie at 10:18 Sunday morning. He killed two, Greg McKendry of TVUUC and Linda Kraeger, visiting from Westside Unitarian Universalist Church in Farragut that morning, and severely wounded six others.

According to police, the gunman has spewed a hatred for the "liberal movement" and wrote that "all liberals should be killed." But the people folded into this climate-controlled church—hip to hip in the light, smooth pews, beneath soaring ceilings and alongside quiet carpeting—they are not all liberal.

Safe to say they're not all any one thing, which is underlined when Sinkford asks for a show of hands. There's a stronghold of local Unitarian/Universalists. But people of the Jewish faith? "A few," he says, and is corrected by a firm voice from the back, where he can't see dozens of hands raised, dozens of skullcaps in the congregation. "A lot," says the voice, and the back murmurs its agreement.

But most—hundreds and hundreds, maybe a thousand—are from other congregations, or no organized religion at all, and they raise their hands to a cheer and a round of applause. They're not here to make sense of the horror, Sinkford assures everyone. That's just not possible, not now. But they're here—some in peasant blouses, others in Muslim dress, one man who knotted his red tie over a crisp blue business shirt in high wind in the parking lot, three slight women in sundresses and button earrings along the wall. "Feel okay?" a young woman with fuzzy, braided brown hair and double-pierced ears asks her older friend—mother?—who's hugging herself and rocking, just a little, in cut-offs and an oversize tie-dye T-shirt. She can only nod.

Amy Neff and her daughter Miriam Griffin come just a second before the ceremonies start, swept in by the wind, wet hair plastered to their foreheads, eyelashes dripping, eyes bright. Their dancers' bodies patter down the aisle to join the other TVUUC members in the sanctuary just off the altar, including husband/dad Brian Griffin, who's the Youth Minister for TVUUC and is looking uncomfortable in a light gray suit, standing on the stage. They pass, on the ends of the aisles, the woman in the tie-dye shirt, a woman with short white hair and a clerical collar, three stylishly suited men with shaved heads, a couple in their 40s, arms entwined.

The speakers are named on the one-page copy paper program, but except for Sinkford, their titles and their church affiliations have been deliberately left off. Their words are almost interchangeable, of one tone, the message uplifting, no platitudes about acceptance, full of urgency, overflowing with love.

"There are no denominations here... we grieve as one and we rage as one," says Rev. Mitra Jafarzadeh.

"We Unitarian Universalists have a long history of standing on the side of love, standing up for justice," says Sinkford. "We're not going to change... we're not going to stop."

"Now more than ever, make us instruments of your peace," exclaims TVUUC minister Chris Buice in a deep Southern drawl, "... Where there is chaos, may we build community... Where this is only light, may we bring all colors of the rainbow."

Inevitably, there is talk of confessed killer Jim D. Adkisson. "A reporter asked me whether I thought Adkisson would go to hell," says Sinkford, stroking his chin, working the moment. A ripple of soft laughter. "It is my religious conviction we would see that person had been living in hell on earth for many years," he thunders, and there is an affirmative "Amen" from the pews.

In between the speeches, all sing. Or most do. The hymns have been selected to unite, not spell out the large and fine points that divide these believers into separate congregations—and no congregation at all—on a typical weekend. "Giving life the shape of justice / Roots hold me close, wings set me free / Spirit of Life, come to me, come to me," goes the first.

Then all stand for the candle-lighting, one each, traveling from the front, where the preachers are, down the aisle like so many collection plates, to the usher, from seat to seat, wick to wick. There is a ceremonial reading of the victims names, ending with the two who died.

"This small light may seem insignificant, may take time to reach you, but over time, with time, light grows and illumines our lives..." intones Rev. Rosemary Bray-McNatt in a rich, melodic voice, pausing between phrases.

And all who can, sing the second song: "What though the tempest 'round me roars, I know the truth, it liveth." The voices lift, tunefully, not too high, not too low.

When it's over, people start pulling themselves up as if to go. Then three chords from the piano sound. Spritely. Recognition dawns. No, not that tune. That's from Annie. A dreadful mistake. No, a perfect, brilliant gesture. "The..." Voices halt, just for a second. And then they sing out, "...sun'll come out..." The kids burst onto the stage from the sanctuary, where the UU members were holding them close. They're belting, sopranos, strong. " your bottom dollar that to-mor-row..."

The congregation, most of it, overcomes its shock and joins in, sobbing, singing, bass, treble, completely off tune. "There'll be sun... " Little girls, a teenage boy, a glamorous blonde young woman, they're soaring towards the grand finale. Some in the audience are crying too hard to sing any more. "Tomorrow tomorrow you're always a day... a... way..."

They've brought the house down. Whoop. Whoop. Thunderous applause. Bows. Smiles. More whoops.

And then that part is done. People, some still smiling, softly blow out their tapers and start moving, some nearer to the stage with flowers for the singers, some to the aisles to hug and pat backs and wipe tears—sad out loud, sad behind composed faces.

Most snake towards the vestibule in a line to return the candle stubs, to quietly greet the religious leaders who didn't speak tonight, who wait there though this isn't their worship center.

Many start to unfurl umbrellas, on the covered walk out front. It is time to move back out into the rain.