Special Reports

Tennessee church finds growth, healing after shooting a year ago

Last summer, a man walked into a Knoxville, Tenn., church, pulled a shotgun out of a guitar case and opened fire during a children's performance of "Annie Jr."

Two people died. Six were wounded. Four church members risked their lives to tackle the assailant and restrain him until police arrived.

That day, Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church was changed.

"Healing has its own timetable," said Rev. Chris Buice, pastor of the church and a witness to the July 27 rampage. "And while it's true there is post-traumatic stress, there is also the possibility of post-traumatic growth."

Buice heard about the shooting death of George Tiller in a Wichita church as he was planning a service to mark the first anniversary of the shooting at his church.

"Nobody's experience is identical," the pastor said, but he can empathize with members of Wichita's Reformation Lutheran Church as they begin to recover and heal.

The church where Tiller worshipped -- and was slain -- plans to hold its regular service at 10 a.m. today.

A political crime

"I have never been through a more difficult and painful experience," Buice (pronounced "bice") said of last summer's rampage and the church's ongoing recovery.

The gunman that day, Jim David Adkisson, had railed against what he called "liberalism that's destroying America." He later pleaded guilty to the crimes.

In a manifesto he penned before the shooting, Adkisson deemed his attack against the Unitarian congregation part "political protest," part "symbolic killing."

Like Reformation Lutheran, where abortion opponents have occasionally staged protests and disrupted services, Buice's church was used to opposition.

For years, the Unitarian church in the hills of largely conservative east Tennessee has run the Spectrum Diversi-Tea & Coffee House, a gathering place for gay teens and others.

A church member named Greg McKendry stood guard at the coffee house door twice a month -- part greeter, part bouncer -- watching for troublemakers, Buice said. More than once, he shooed some away.

McKendry was killed in the shooting.

"We're a progressive church that takes stands on a wide variety of issues, so we'd periodically get hate mail and things," Buice said.

Even so, "That had become kind of like background noise.... No one could have imagined what happened. It was a shock at the time, while it was happening, and it remains a shock."

'Unspeakable amounts of love'

Within hours of the shooting, the Tennessee church launched a trauma support team of mental health workers, Red Cross volunteers and others, Buice said.

The next day, "we thought everyone kind of needed a chance to be together," but the sanctuary was still a crime scene. So church members planned a short vespers service at a Presbyterian church next door.

Hundreds came.

"It was a gathering of Christians, Jews, Muslims and Buddhists, believers and unbelievers," Buice said.

People crowded in the aisles and spilled onto the church lawn, where they stood in the rain.

"Both conservatives and liberals were clear that we're not a town that hates. We're not a town that thinks this is the way to respond when you disagree with somebody's politics. That came through loud and clear," he said.

Days later, during a rededication of the church sanctuary, Buice told his congregation: "A man came into this space with a desire to commit an act of hatred, but he has unleashed unspeakable amounts of love."

'A good place to be'

Still, Buice and other church leaders feared the crime might threaten the existence of the 60-year-old church.

"We thought this might be the end of our Sunday school program," he said. "Parents understandably are concerned for the safety of their kids, and this (shooting) happened... in front of so many children."

Also, some church members who witnessed the crime found it difficult to return to the sanctuary afterward, Buice said, choosing instead to stand on the lawn or gather in a nearby fellowship hall during the rededication.

Nevertheless, the church not only survived but grew. Despite almost 100 members branching off to start a new church in nearby Maryville, Tenn. --which was planned before the shooting -- Tennessee Valley has about 20 more members today than it did last summer.

"Part of it was the community liked how we responded," Buice said. "They felt this is a good place to be."

The church increased security and now employs a "sexton system," in which greeters also look out for suspicious activity. It's a delicate balance because "our doors are open, and we're a welcoming community," Buice said.

"But what was unthinkable is now thinkable, and so that extra vigilance is there, not only in our church but throughout the community."

'A year of tremendous growth'

Signs of last summer's shooting are still visible at the Knoxville church. Portraits of the two people who died -- McKendry and Linda Kraeger -- hang in the fellowship hall and library, which are named for the victims.

The church's Web site includes a recovery resource list with links to mental health services and an online, anonymous self-evaluation.

"That will be up there for a while," Buice said. "We recognize that the process of recovering and healing is different for every person."

He hesitates to compare his church's experience with that of Reformation Lutheran, which is just beginning its recovery. But "our hearts go out to the people of Wichita," and especially to those directly affected by last Sunday's tragedy, Buice said.

"It's certainly not the way I would choose to grow," he said. "But this has been a year of tremendous growth in terms of my connection to the depths of the spirit."

Nowhere is that spirit more evident, he said, than among children at his church, whose performance of the brazenly optimistic musical "Annie" was halted by gunfire. Days later, the kids asked Buice if they could sing again.

So after the pastor rededicated the sanctuary, after he told his congregation that "this sacred space which has seen death, we recommit to life," Buice invited the children to the front of the church once again.

And they sang: "The sun'll come out... tomorrow."

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