Challenger Logo by Alan White   A Science Fiction Fanzine   Summer 2009


The Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church Shooting –a Victim, the Community

Guy Lillian/Chloie Airoldi

Chloie Airoldi is a survivor … and a science fiction fan. For many years she chaired Con*Cat, a terrific convention in Knoxville which featured guests like Chelsea Quinn Yarbro, Octavia Butler, Charles deLint, Neil Gaiman and Samuel R. Delany. She also worked other Tennessee events, like OutsideCon, KublaKon, and Liberty-Con. And she is a member of the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church.

On July 27, 2008, it became the most famous church in America – for all the wrong reasons.

GHLIII: Tell us about the church.  Does it have a history and guiding principle?

It had this on our front door, even before the shooting:


On Sunday morning, February 12, 1950 Jim Pierson arrived at the front door of the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Church. He saw a sign in the front window where the church was meeting (it was renting space at that time) - a sign very similar to this sign. He asked the greeter at the door “Does that welcome sign mean me?” He asked because Jim Pierson was a black man and Knoxville was a highly segregated city at the time. Mr. Pierson was not at all sure that the church sign really meant what it said. The church greeter assured him that he was indeed welcome and he was seated for that Sunday’s service. Mr. Pierson returned for more services and later became a member, making this church one of the first integrated churches in Knoxville. Because it was integrated, many organizations - including the City of Knoxville - refused to rent the church space.

This begat an era known in our church history as “wandering in the wilderness.” For months worship services were held at a different location every week as leaders searched for a permanent home. All because a black man was welcomed in to attend our worship service. It was a simple sign placed by the front door, backed by the sincerity and warmth of the people within, that made the difference for Jim Pierson and for this church.

This current sign is only slightly different from the original. “Universalist” has been added to our name. And, as a Welcoming Congregation, we have added the rainbow flag - the best visual symbol we could find to show our intention to welcome ALL people. Yesterday and today, whoever you are, wherever you are from, wherever you may be on life’s journey, you are welcome to worship with us. Come in to this church.

What drew you
to the church? Have you always been a believer? 

No, I've always been somewhat of an agnostic with a smattering of Seth.
JaNell Golden asked me to take her son to and from church because he wanted to be in a high school group there and she had heard me say "If I go to a church, I'd go to a Unitarian."

Also, I'd seen a documentary Gene Roddenberry's son was doing and our minister, Chris Buice was interviewed. He loves using Star Trek references. Once I started taking Sean, I found I loved this community of people and Chris’ sermons.

How long you been going there?  Any particular memories of the place, pre-tragedy?

Since 2003, I was and am involved in a lot activities. BookSale for the Alliance, a church group of which I am president. Family Promise (co-coordinator), a homeless program.  KIN (Knoxville Interfaith Network), where I represent our church on the Board. I'm also on the Board at TVUUC. The most vivid memory is sharing meals & lots of laughter.

The tragedy itself – what was going on that day? Do you remember the order of events?

The Music Department was putting on a production of Annie
& my granddaughter Amira, who many know, was playing Mrs. Hanigan.  I normally seat on the left side of the sanctuary, but joined my son and 6 year old granddaughter, Aidyn, in the front pew on the right side. The play started & was to the place where Mrs. Hanigan catches Annie who was going to run away. I was so excited to see Amira! Just as she grabs Annie and starts to yell at her, a loud, ear-deafening noise goes off.

I thought maybe it was part of the play, but my son pushes Aidyn and me to the floor. Someone, I think Vicki our music director, shouted he's got a fucking gun! There were two more shots.

Some where in that time, Jamie, my son says "I'm going to help the guys stay down" All this time my granddaughter is screaming “Why are you pushing me down on the floor?" I am trying to keep her from getting back up and I'm scared and confused. I remember thinking this can't be happening, not here, not now. I want to see Amira sing and act. I worried I couldn't keep Aidyn down with me.

Then we are told to leave the sanctuary by the back door. I'm hanging on to Aidyn and as we get up from under the pew I notice a still white form and a large (huge) pool of blood I was laying in. I believe this was the woman who later died.

I had blood spatter all over me & my hair was covered. People freaked out thinking I'd been hit I remember saying over & over "It's not my blood!" My daughter-in-law Amy took Aidyn from me and tried to calm her. She kept asking “why did we push her down with the dead lady?”

I was numb & in shock. I sat in the grass with others waiting to find out what was happening. Later the police talked to us all. I remember sitting in the fellowship hall feeling displaced. It was hard to comprehend what was happening to us. Amira had just lost her mother Maia on February 26 and now this, The TV shots were using Amira crying while smoking a cigarette.  I remember her apologizing to her Dad.

At some point a friend took me in the ladies room, washed my hair and gave me her sweater. My purse was somewhere in the sanctuary which was now a crime scene, so I didn't have my cell phone or car keys. My daughter-in-law had a spare of my keys so I was able to drive; however, we all went to my son's. I don't remember much there or later. I remember feeling I was watching a movie.

My son and daughter-in-law appeared on the Today show in an interview. It was Aidyn and me that Jamie talked about pushing to the floor.

Chloie didn’t know Jim David Adkisson, the shooter – or his wife, once a member of the church. What's with his talk about the church's "liberal" views?  What was he talking about?

I copied this from our web site:

We strive to be a liberal religious community where people of all faiths can find common ground and feel empowered to work for the common good. In our church we believe that diversity is a strength not a weakness. Listening to different points of view can lead to opportunities for intellectual and spiritual growth. Our members hold a variety of theological and philosophical perspectives and yet we covenant together to build a community where each person is valued and respected. We believe that each person has something to share that can enrich our common life. Our congregation has a deep commitment to religious freedom and the authority of the individual conscience. We believe in building a society that respects human rights both at home and abroad. We are committed to working in interfaith partnerships to feed the hungry, protect the environment, empower social justice efforts and celebrate religious freedom. We appreciate your taking the time to learn more about our church by visiting our website. Here you can begin to get some sense of the creativity and the variety of our programming and activities. We hope you will drop by and visit our church in the near future. We welcome you and your ideas and your vision.

Rev. Chris Buice

What did you do the rest of that night?

I went out to dinner with a friend & then we played Scrabble. It seemed like we both didn't talk about it, like it didn't happen. Which now I see was just a way of coping with our fear and shock. At the debriefing sessions at the 2nd Presbyterian Church is when I really fell apart. It was good to talk about it in a safe and loving setting. All the next week I was at church helping and hugging and crying with others.

Has the incident changed the church?

We are more committed to "Love is the spirit of this church & service is its law, to dwell together in peace, to seek the truth in love and to help one another. This is our covenant. Or as the kids say: “Ours is the church of the open mind, loving heart & helping hands.”

Also more people have joined, including many with families. We have felt the outpour of interfaith caring from the local mosque, the Jewish temple & synagogue, Christian, Wiccan, Bahai, as well as non-believers.
Did it change you?

Yes – it has made me realize how precious life is & how important the people you care about are. My respect for this community has grown. They conducted themselves so wonderfully, helping one another and showing great presence in the face of such horror.

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