This past Sunday, I participated in the service of re-dedication at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church in Knoxville, TN. It is eight years since I served there as minister, and one week since a man entered that sanctuary intending to be a mass murderer, intending to be a murderer of children. He killed two adults and seriously wounded 6 other adults before he was quickly subdued by members of the congregation.
That beautiful sanctuary that I helped build and bless, had, through a horrible, senseless act of violence been turned into a crime scene, a trauma center, a wake, a memorial, a weeklong media event.
That Sunday, the children and teens of both the Tennessee Valley Church and the Westside Unitarian Universalist church were presenting the play, “Annie Jr.” But, instead of seeing a play, they saw murder, instead of hearing a musical, they heard shattering shotgun blasts.
It was hard to believe it had really happened until I ran my hands over the scarred walls where pellets were embedded. It was hard to believe until I heard the accounts told in still-shaky voices, over and over. It was hard to believe until I saw signs of traumatic stress in the reddened, tired eyes of so many. It was hard to believe until the names of those killed and wounded were spoken.
The Tennessee Valley congregation was the first church I served as a UU minister. Moving from Chicago to Knoxville and learning ministry in the Bible Belt was a profound experience for me. The need for liberal ministry is clear there, where Christian fundamentalism is strong. The Tennessee Valley congregation has always stood up for equality, diversity, and religious liberty. Unitarian Universalism is a faith that values difference of opinion and belief . As a liberal religion we value people of different colors, genders and sexual orientations. We believe that all people have worth and dignity, and we try to live that belief.
Religious groups sometimes build walls, high brick walls between different faiths and denominations. Some think that those on the other side of their carefully constructed walls are to be feared or hated. Some apply labels, and teach prejudice.
In Knoxville, Unitarian Universalists were routinely labeled “Other”. Unitarian Universalists were often marginalized within the larger faith community. Our children were regularly told by other children that “they were going to go to hell” unless they believed a certain doctrine. The walls between the churches were old and sturdy; the walls were high and well-maintained.
But last week, those walls came tumbling down. Last week the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Church was the recipient of wondrous love and generous compassion. Last week, the Presbyterians took in our children as they ran from the gunman. Last week the Baptists brought food everyday. Last week, the Jews lit candles for us and attended our vigil. Last week the Muslims prayed for us. Last week, the Quakers and the Catholics and the Episcopalians brought flowers and sent cards. Strings and strings of colorful paper peace doves were brought for the children.
All last week the church was open to the community, open for silent meditation in the sanctuary, open for shared meals, open for prayer, open for sharing pain and compassion, open for all who brought blessings and good wishes. The church was filled with people all day, every day.
Last week, the walls of religious separation came tumbling down. It was a kind of miracle. A miracle of grace and the human spirit. As Rev. William SinkfordUnitarian, Universalist Association President, wrote in a letter read at the service: “Your love has overpowered fear”. For one week there were no separate denominations or faith groups in the city of Knoxville. For one week, we were one grieving family, one in our sorrow, and one in our resolve to witness to peace.
As the service ended yesterday, lay and ordained ministers walked to the back of the crowded sanctuary and stood shoulder to shoulder with the Rev. Chris Buice, minister of the Tennessee Valley Church as he spoke words of re-dedication of that sacred space. We stood on the spot where the gunman had stood, near where the first victim was killed; we stood confident that love overcomes hate, that love is the spirit of our church. We stood as the congregation joined the children and teens in singing, “The sun will come out tomorrow” – the song they had not gotten to sing a week earlier. We were standing on the side of love.
Rev. Lynn Thomas Strauss is minister of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Rockville, MD.