Challenger Logo by Alan White   A Science Fiction Fanzine   Summer 2009


The Tragedy and Healing in Knoxville

Olivia Spooner

The Unitarian Universalist Historical Society

Chloie led us to Olivia Spooner’s prize-winning essay for the Unitarian Universalist Historical Society.

Ms. Spooner is a 17-year-old home school student who attends the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church in Knoxville, where she facilitates a youth small group ministry. She plans to attend Pellissippi State Technical Community College following high school graduation in 2010, and then attend the University of Tennessee.She was a member of the Annie cast that day. Chloie credits her with moving the younger children safely out of harm’s way.

Ms. Spooner, her mother, and the UUHS all gave Challenger generous permission to reprint excerpts from her prize-winning essay. The entire text, including credits and notes, can be found at

illo by Randy Cleary

Im a star!  This exuberant exclamation from the young cast of Annie, Jr.! echoed in unison through the bare sanctuary at the end of each rehearsal day. They were preparing for their big debut on Sunday morning, July 27, 2008, from the transformed stage at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church (TVUUC) in Knoxville, Tennessee.

In character and as ready as they’d ever be, the children paraded into the sanctuary through the “house” past proud family and friends, to take their places for the opening scene. In all, 26 children, ages ranging from 7 to 16 years old, and 2 adults comprised the ensemble of talent, having persevered several weeks of intense rehearsal. Under the direction of Vicki Masters, music director at TVUUC, a crew of well over a dozen adults and one teen had fulfilled roles ranging in often overlapping responsibilities, from directing, music, choreography, set design, and costumes, to administrative tasks necessary for such an ambitious project. Annie filled the summer with planning, construction, memorizing dialogue, singing, and dancing. Every bit of it was invested into this Sunday morning. The full dress rehearsal the day before had been captured on video –a piece of history that would bring unimaginable comfort to some and unfaceable memories to others.

Because the musical theater workshop was a community summer camp, a number of participants had no other association with TVUUC other than the desire to be a part of the show. Some children were from out-of-state, visiting grandparents for the summer. Likewise, many in the audience were first-time visitors, coming to support their neighbor, relative, or friend. The cast and audience represented a true fellowship of diversity, coming together to celebrate the story of the orphan Annie, who inspires us to have hope in the face of adversity and to know that tomorrow holds promise.

The sun will come out - Tomorrow!

The following is a reflection of that Sunday morning, 10:15 a.m., from a backstage adult: “We were past the first song and were several minutes into the dialogue in the opening scene with eight children performing on stage. The first ‘boom’ was incredibly loud, startling, and so foreign that it did not register – it had no place, no context, no warning. It forced you to gasp and hold your breath. The second ‘boom’ confirmed danger. It seemed even louder, even more inconceivable. When I ran out from behind the stage right curtain to reach the kids, there frozen on stage, I did not look out into the audience at all and I did not hear any voices, yelling, or commotion. I clearly remember thinking that if I was wrong, if it had somehow been my imagination or if I was overreacting, I would simply apologize to everyone and we would start over again from the top. We hurried around the corner, and most of the children had reached the back door just as the third boom sounded. We gathered with the other children who were already outside waiting for their scenes and we moved a distance away – the children huddled, clinging, sobbing. It was like time came to a standstill as we waited, confused and unsure of what just happened. We were unaware of the well-being of a handful of fellow cast members who were staged to enter from the ‘house’, who, as we later learned, had run to the church next door. We were unaware of what our families and friends were experiencing inside. We held our breath again, numb, unable to imagine the extent of the damage that had just been done.”

The shocking news of the church shooting dominated headlines and internet blogs as facts about Jim David Adkisson and his motives were released.

In a sworn affidavit, an officer who interrogated him on July 27, 2008, wrote, “During the interview Adkisson stated that he had targeted the church because of its liberal teachings and his belief that all liberals should be killed because they were ruining the country, and that he felt that the Democrats had tied this country’s hands in the war on terror and they had ruined every institution in America with the aid of major media outlets. Adkisson made statements that because he could not get the leaders of the liberal movement that he would then target those that had voted them into office.” Knoxville Police Chief Sterling Owen said that Adkisson’s stated hatred of the liberal movement was not necessarily connected to any hostility toward Christianity or religion per se, but rather the political advocacy of the church. He commented on some of the contents of a four-page letter found in the defendant’s vehicle parked at the church, saying that Adkisson wrote he was angered by his lack of being able to obtain a job, by the reduction in his food stamp allotment, and at "the liberal movement." Owen explained the liberal movement, as defined by Adkisson, included liberal philosophies and issues pertaining to gays.

The so-called manifesto, initially kept from public view, reveals a disturbed soul who believed the church to be a symbol for everything he hated and who blamed liberals for his economic problems and life’s failures. He saw the congregation not as a church, but as a part of the problems in society. He targeted the church and its people because he disagreed with what Unitarian Universalism stands for –tolerance, equal rights, fair treatment, progressive change, safe harbor, mutual respect, inclusive community, and transformative love. Adkisson became familiar with UU ideals when his ex-wife had attended the church a decade ago. He had accompanied her to at least one summer event in the district in the mid-nineties.

While police said Adkisson did not mention his ex-wife in the letter, they believe this connection is why he selected TVUUC to unleash his frustrations.

Adkisson bought a 12-gauge shot gun at a pawn shop a month earlier, despite a domestic violence restraining order in 2000 that should have prohibited the purchase. He concealed the weapon in a guitar case and first tried to enter the building through a door behind the stage but was stopped. At the main entrance, he was greeted by a child holding the door open for him. After taking the defendant into custody, police recovered 76 rounds of ammunition, including three shots fired. He intended to take a lot of casualties and be killed by police. The letter he wrote was meant to be a suicide note.

The brokenness of this man is clear, his rationale deranged. Mark Harmon, a church member who witnessed the attack, stated in an interview later that day that “the church is full of people of good will, of open and loving spirits, and into it came this moment of pure hate”.

Adkisson’s plan to kill himself and many others was thwarted by six brave men who subdued and disarmed him. The heroic actions and quick thinking of John Bohstedt (who played Daddy Warbucks in the play), Terry Uselton, Arthur Bolds, Robert Birdwell, Jr., Jamie Parkey, and Michael Wilson prevented the potential for devastating mass casualties. They kept him alive to face the justice he deserves and to see what his hatred wrought.

Bet your bottom dollar that Tomorrow…there’ll be sun,

Congregants feel that “hero” is not a big enough word to describe Greg McKendry, who in his last selfless act of love courageously shielded others by sacrificing his own life. Eyewitnesses say that he did not hesitate. Greg’s passion in life involved putting himself in a position to be of service and to help others, which he did by fulfilling many roles in the congregation. His kindness was legendary. It isn’t surprising to those who knew him that he would be first to approach the assailant to try to diffuse the situation and avert the threat. Greg would have been just as likely to have extended a helping hand to this man who felt life was no longer worth living. He would have reached out to this man with intentional love and given his all to help. Instead he gave his all to protect others. His life exemplified the qualities of religious liberalism.

Amy Broyles’ family had been in the line of fire and was shielded by Greg’s heroism. Visiting the church that morning to see her daughter perform in the play, Amy said in an interview that Adkisson "was a man who was hurt in the world and feeling that nothing was going his way. He turned the gun on people who were most likely to treat him lovingly and compassionately and be the ones to help someone in that situation". She shared that she was tremendously impressed with the calm, effective way that church members with medical training responded to the needs of the gunshot victims, treating them at the scene until help arrived.

Tragically, Linda Lee Kraeger’s life was not spared. Linda was a member of Westside Unitarian Universalist Church (Westside UUC) in nearby Farragut since 2007, and had been a long-time member of the Denton UU Fellowship in Texas before then. A humanitarian and author, she had a teacher’s caring heart, a big smile, and devotion to friends. Although not related, Linda was like an aunt to one of the play’s “orphans”, whom she was helping to raise, the granddaughter of dear friends, the Barnhart family. Four members of the Barnhart family were wounded by gunfire. TVUUC member Tammy Sommers, 38, and John Worth, Jr., 68, also survived gunshot wounds. Allison Lee, 42, was injured while crawling to safety.

Just thinking about… tomorrow,

The work of mourning was exhausting, yet the church could not rest from it. Members held each other until the shaking stopped. “The sanctuary had, through a horrible, senseless act of violence, been turned into a crime scene, a trauma center, a wake, a memorial, a week-long media event,” wrote Rev. Lynn Thomas Strauss, minister of Unitarian Universalist Church of Rockville, MD., and former TVUUC minister. At Westside UUC, a special service was held to honor two of their own who were victims in the shooting, to acknowledge their sorrow and loss, and begin the process of healing.

To represent how the fabric of the church community had been torn, members observed a rending-of-the-garment ritual, which was borrowed from the Jewish tradition. Grieving members stood before the congregation and tore apart a shirt bearing the church logo and signatures of members. After being displayed in the sanctuary for about a year, the shirt will be coarsely mended, using thread of a contrasting color. It will symbolize that although the shirt will be usable again, it can never be the same, just as their congregation will be forever altered. The mending of the shirt signifies the promise of healing to come.

At the Rededication service on August 3, Rev. Chris Buice, minister at TVUUC, said in his homily, “He came into this space to inflict death: and he took away the lives of two precious people, wounded six other, traumatized the rest of us, traumatized our community and the world. But strangely, at the same time, reminding us of the preciousness of our children, the sacredness of life, and at this moment in time the true value of friendship and family, and how much we need good neighbors”.

In a letter to the congregation read at the Rededication service, UUA President Rev. Bill Sinkford said, “You created meaning from an unthinkably destructive act. You have chosen to reclaim this space, a choice that reflects your deep commitment to your religious mission and an abiding belief in the power of community.” Congregants agree that their belief in the power of community had not been misplaced; it did not forsake them in their hour of need. Its power was resuscitating.

Clears away the cobwebs and the sorrow…til there’s none.

Throughout the greater Knoxville area, people came together to express their outrage, sorrow, and solidarity with the members of TVUUC and Westside UUC. According to TVUUC spokesperson Bill Dockery, forty percent of the thousand people who attended the vigil were members of the community who came out on that rainy night simply to show support. In a moving closing at the candlelight vigil, children from the cast of Annie stood hand-in-hand, front and center, and sang “Tomorrow”, which had been practiced to perfection, along with a tearful crowd.

In the days ahead, other prayer services were held in and around Knoxville, and UU congregations around the world observed special services. In the weeks ahead, love and support poured on the church and its members, like the drenching rain that night of the vigil. Rev. Buice said, “We thought it was about us. What we discovered was that it was about the entire Knoxville community. Our children were their children. We had people show up for the memorial service (candlelight vigil) from the Tibetan Buddhist Center, from the synagogues, the local mosque, and a wide variety of Christian churches. The people who have come to feed us come from churches you’d consider conservative, liberal, and everything in between. But they fed us and loved us and didn’t discriminate on the basis of race or sexual orientation. It’s been a reflection of overwhelming, overpowering love”. Rev. Strauss, who had served as minister at TVUUC from 1991 to 1999, said, “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 sorrow and one in our resolve to witness to peace.”

When I’m stuck with a day, that’s gray, and lonely…

The criminal investigation continued. Believing that he would be killed, the defendant left his home in Powell unlocked for police to search after the intended massacre. Along with a pistol and other items, books were seized as evidence. This reading material is believed by many to have contributed to Adkisson’s agitated state of mind because the books are written by media figures selling the idea that “liberal” is the brand name and source for the nation’s woes, for opinions they disagree with, and for what is wrong in our society. The debate between competing world views is presented by the authors as a morality play with one side morally superior and right, and the other morally inferior and wrong. Disagreements between liberals and conservatives that utilize intolerant rhetoric are commonly described as “culture wars”. The use of such language of violence is believed to play a role in the culture of violence in our country. Words or deeds promoting bias can incite hostility, distrust, and fear by feeding an “us” versus “them” mentality. Extreme political polarization is thought to create an environment where outrageous criticism could influence the vulnerable and inspire the misguided to act in irresponsible ways and feel justified in doing so.

The attacker acted alone with no connection to any hate group. According to Tennessee hate crime laws, political affiliation is not a protected characteristic. Tennessee courts are permitted to enhance the sentence for a crime committed because of the victim’s “race, religion, color, disability, sexual orientation, national origin, ancestry, or gender”. A second state law makes it a felony to intimidate someone for exercising his or her civil rights, and specifically mentions, “race, color, ancestry, religion, or national origin”, leaving out both political affiliation and sexual orientation. Tennessee authorities are investigating the church shooting as a hate crime because of Adkisson’s confession of targeting gays, but not because “liberals should be killed because they are ruining the country”. Stacie Bohanan, spokeswoman for the BI's Knoxville division, said, "Anytime someone uses force to obstruct another person in the free exercise of their religious beliefs, that becomes a violation of the federal civil rights statutes".

I just stick out my chin, and grin, and say…Oh, the sun will come out…

Cards, notes, letters, flowers, artwork, and other forms of expressed love and support began arriving at the church. A map was displayed that marked where they came from, providing visual reassurances that hurting members were not alone. Volunteer groups have given beautiful handmade blankets, quilts, scarves, and shawls to the Annie cast children to “wrap them in love”. School children, community groups, congregations, and families from across the country have sent thousands of peace cranes, a Japanese origami craft that is believed to grant wishes, especially wishes for peace. Colorful peace cranes hang in a huge chandelier in the TVUUC fellowship hall, recently renamed the Greg McKendry Fellowship Hall, as well as in offices and other places. Strings of peace cranes have gone home with the children as reminders of peaceful wishes for them and have inspired plans for the 2009 TVUUC children’s summer camp about the true story of Sadako and the Thousand Cranes.

The children of the congregation received official Bravery Awards at the Rededication service that state, “The Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church presents this certificate on the Third of August 2008 in recognition of your great courage and willingness to continue loving in the face of adversity”. The award also states the Affirmation: “Love is the spirit of this church, and service is its law. To dwell together in peace, to seek the truth in love, and to help one another: This is our great covenant.”

Tomorrow…but you gotta hang on til tomorrow...come what may…

The violence in Knoxville has emboldened Unitarian Universalists denomination-wide because it has focused attention on the core beliefs and values of the faith. Rev. Bill Sinkford said that the terrible crime and the inspiring responses have put Unitarian Universalism under an intense media spotlight. He invited Unitarian Universalists to publicly define who we are and what we stand for. The UUA placed a full-page ad in the New York Times on Sunday, August 10, 2008, with the header, “Our Doors and Our Hearts Remain Open”. It proclaims that the message of Unitarian Universalism is “to welcome the stranger, to love our neighbor, to work for justice, to nurture the spirits of all who seek a liberal religious name, and to help heal the wounded world.”

Words are etched in the stone exterior of the beautiful Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church building, built in 1997. Among these words, selected by the congregation to represent UU beliefs, are “sorrow”, “justice”, “peace”, “diversity”, “struggle”, “question”, “love”, “community”, and “hope”. Their meanings have helped sustain them since unexpected shadows fell across the sanctuary on July 27, just as their meanings have helped to reinforce the spirits of all who were intimately touched by the tragedy.

Annette Marquis, UUA Thomas Jefferson District Executive, shared words of healing at the TVUUC Rededication service. She said, “When you could have understandably responded with bitterness, you showed the world your expansive spirit, your unconditional love, and your incredible openness to all who seek to be in community with you. You have modeled the ideals of who we all strive to be”. A note from a sister church reads, “We pledge to redeem the sacrifice suffered by your congregation by our own commitment to continue our work for these principles, and to work all the harder knowing how much some have already given in support of these values. May our common struggle soon blossom into the world community of peace, liberty, and justice we seek”. A note from a fellow UU simply urged, “Do the right thing in response.”

Tomorrow, tomorrow… I love ya, tomorrow

Rev. Richard Weston-Jones, of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Hillsborough, NC, said, “When an individual acts in a way that denigrates our belief in the inherent worth and dignity of every person, we are called upon to reaffirm that belief – even in the terribly misguided person who attacked us.” He shared that the attack “marked the first time since the Second World War that Unitarian Universalists were martyred because of their activity in one of our churches – and the only time that members of our faith have been singled out to be killed in one of our churches anywhere in the world for the faith that we share”. Francis David, the Unitarian martyr who died in prison in 1579, scratched the words he believed on the walls of his prison cell, “We need not think alike, to love alike.”

Modern Unitarians believe these words too. While Unitarian Universalism is unmistakably grounded in the liberal religious tradition, members hold views and maintain affiliations as their consciences guide them. These views represent a range across the political and cultural spectrum. In the Newsweek article, Rev. Buice wrote, “In our church, the word ‘liberal’ is meant to describe whom we include, not whom we exclude. The children in our congregation say these words in chapel services: ‘Ours is the church of the loving heart, open mind and helping hands.’ Our understanding of liberalism speaks to a generosity of spirit that transcends partisan politics”.

Rev. Cheryl M. Walker, in a sermon at All Souls Church in New York, said, “In far too many ways Jim Adkisson personifies all that is the struggle of America. Too willing to blame, inflamed by too many who would divide us into the good and the evil, failed by a health care system he did not have access to, ignored by a criminal justice system that did not act soon enough, and shamed by a society that measures our value in wealth. Sadly, at the end of his rope he chose to destroy the very people who are most interested in changing all those things about our society, we Unitarian Universalists.”

Adkisson’s actions are the manifestation of deep-rooted problems. Despite whatever political outlook, economic condition, or mental affliction that tormented him, the ultimate blame for this crime rests first and foremost with the man who pulled the trigger. The extent that American culture, the lack of a truly equitable society, and the ineffectiveness of proper social nets may have failed him is complicated and had likely presented numerous battles. The battle he lost was with his own demons. When asked by a reporter if Adkissson would go to hell for what he did, Rev. Sinkford replied that he had been “living in a hell here on earth for years.”

Accountability and responsibility for actions are important. In the Newsweek article, Rev. Buice wrote, “If you walk into a liberal church and open fire on its members, we will still defend your right to due process, access to an attorney and a fair trial”. While perpetrators are in the criminal justice system, they should receive respectful treatment that does not rob them of their worth and dignity –no torture, for instance, and basic humane treatment, e.g., shelter, food, cleanliness. On February 9, 2009, in the Knox County Criminal Court, Jim David Adkisson pleaded guilty to the deadly shooting rampage at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church and was sentenced to life in prison without parole. In the would-be suicide letter, which was released to the public, Adkisson deemed his attack part “political protest” and part “symbolic killing”. He showed no remorse in the courtroom. Rev. Buice said, “Ultimately, his hatred is what now confines him. He will spend the rest of his days in prison. He is now a victim of his own hatred.”

You’re only a day away! Tomorrow, tomorrow…

Knoxville’s unfinished Annie performance was brought to a conclusion before an audience in Baton Rouge, a bittersweet gift just in time for Christmas, to say “the show will go on, violence will not win.” The youth and congregation of the Unitarian Church of Baton Rouge have paid tribute to those affected by the tragedy in Knoxville by preparing and presenting the musical Annie, Jr. to their community. They did what TVUUC had not been able to do: touch hearts with a timeless story of optimism, compassion, and overcoming your own odds.

The Knoxville youth and congregation have endured a different story, one for which there is no preparation. Theirs is a story of heartache and of hope and of spirit and courage to cope with circumstances beyond their control. The red-headed orphan experiences hard knocks in life to find her happy ending surrounded by acceptance and love. It takes a while for her to get there. While justice may be more than a day away, the stages of recovery continue to progress, like through scenes of a play. A note of encouragement from a fellow UU says that some holes in our hearts are never meant to heal; we must simply grow bigger hearts around them. As we continue together sharing in this life-affirming faith, today and tomorrow, our resilient spirit will withstand gray days.

I love ya, Tomorrow… You’re only a day away!

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