Thursday, July 31, 2014

Of Rainbows and Revolutions

Listening to the fireworks of summer independence day festivities always makes me glad not to be hearing gunfire. It also stands as a reminder of the work we are all still doing to live together free of fear. 

On Sunday July 27, 2008, Jim David Adkisson walked into Knoxville’s Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church and opened fire on the congregation as they were watching the youth program perform a musical. Two adults died, and seven people were seriously injured trying to protect the children. One of my best friends from high school shattered both kneecaps falling to the floor to shield her two young daughters from the bullets.

Above, the TVUUC church that was built in the shape of a Chalice, which is the symbol of the Unitarian Universalist faith. It was also a good shape to save an ancient tree that was growing on the building site, and whose leaves can be seen above the top of the building (accessed 7/1/13  at

Adkisson’s shooting spree in Knoxville that hot summer morning was “politically motivated” according to the investigations following the violence, as reported by local media (and wikipedia). A veteran of the U.S. Army, his very vocal hatred of "Democrats," "African Americans," and "Homosexuals" fueled his opposition to TVUUC. Testimonials from those who were in the church at the time of the shooting reflect on why it is a risk and a privilege—apparently one even worth dying for--to be a congregation that welcomes all spiritual beliefs, races and sexualities in today's U.S.:                                                                                                                 
     ...There has been some speculation as to why the shooter did it. Some speculate mental      illness--and anyone who would do something like this has to be at least a bit mentally          ill--but some point out that we may have been targeted because we are a welcoming          congregation…I will say, though, that we'd not long ago put up a banner announcing          the fact that everyone is welcome in our church, regardless of race or sexuality. If this          shooting was politically motivated, well... it wouldn't be the first time we've dealt with          hatred because of our beliefs. Back in the fifties, before we had our own church                    building, many people refused to rent space to us because we had a mixed-race      
     congregation. We're not afraid to do the right thing, and, even after these events, we will      still be unafraid. We are a loving and welcoming congregation, and we are strong.       
     Thanks again to all those who are keeping us in their thoughts and prayers      

One congregant looks back on the bravery that limited the death toll to two. In those split seconds, many individuals, acting together, had the instinct to place themselves between Adkinsson and the others in the room:

…thank you to at least three heroes that I know of. Greg McKendry, one of the two who died, apparently blocked the first shot, saving who knows how many people. After the second shot, several members of the congregation charged the shooter. Among them were John Bohstedt, a history professor at UT, and... well, as a parent I know him as "*** Birdwell's father." There were others…the shooter had a lot of ammo. A lot. If he hadn't been stopped, even the 3 minute response time from the police wouldn't have averted an even greater tragedy.

Another victim of the TVUUC shootings, Tammy Sommers, spoke publicly about her trauma a few summers ago, in order to express solidarity with victims of a shooting in a Sikh temple in Wisconsin in August, 2012. She noted, with a wry sense of disbelief still lingering in her voice:  "He was entering the sanctuary when he opened fire…The toughest memory that I had was I bled on my children in a way a mother would never wanted to."[1] 
Today I am a member of a UU congregation that is bigger than the one I recall from East Tennessee, where the man "in the pulpit" (though most UUA congregations have soaring, spare modern rooms for meetings) was former UUA President John Beuhrens. John is a graduate of Harvard Divinity School and expert on biblical scripture. My childhood church was one of his first ministries, and he both learned and taught a LOT. He and his wife, an Episcopalian Minister, were beacons to all of us, demonstrating how dual careers of care in the world can work without depleting marriages and families. When he officiated at my wedding in the monument to social justice that is Timothy Dwight chapel on the Yale University campus he offered spare but grave advice to me and my husband: "Take Care of Each Other." In times of trouble, we cleave to that.

The Minister in my new church, First UUAA, did not study scripture for years to get there. As she tells it, she was working as a sorry-for-herself, snowplow-driving dyke in Maine when she found her calling. Later, she gained  wide acclaim for her first sermons, which obtained standing ovations around the country. She spoke with conviction, humor and honesty about her own journey from devouring anger as a marginalized American to a stance of active, transformative love and a generous ministry. 

My new church’s tree is a Downy Hawthorne, documented as the largest of its subspecies in the United States…possibly in all of North America. It stands behind the church on the large parcel of rural land the congregation bought to build on and have preserved as a network of trails and outdoor recreation or meditation sites. My daughter and I often walk out after church to sit under it and pray when we are worried for the health of grandparents, concerned for friends in places torn by contemporary political conflict, or just in need of guidance and peace in our own lives.  Hawthornes are sacred in much of Europe; they provide flowers for Mayday festivals and fertility rites of spring. They are Shakespeare's "fairy groves." I can see why, sitting out there of a Sunday in all seasons.

In front of the church, at the main entrance, flies the Rainbow Flag. My daughter learned this year in her Spiritual Growth class on Sunday mornings about the rainbow as a symbol of the covenant between God and Noah as the floods receded and the earth again became a hospitable place for human (and other species) habitation. She has also learned that the rainbow is our church covenant, as a welcoming and tolerant congregation that believes in embracing the complexity of social identities, of science, of collective action and individual moral stands against the floods of hatred, bigotry, and environmental harm, even in the face of armed anger. 

Places of worship aren't the only targets for armed anger; one thinks of Congresswoman Gabriel Giffords, attacked in a secular site--an Arizona supermarket. Her survival seemed so unlikely, after being shot through the brain by a disaffected and disoriented young man in the parking lot outside the store where she was meeting and greeting constituents in 2011.  Several victims in that shooting died, including a federal judge and a nine year old girl. This photo  depicts Giffords returning to the House Floor, nearly six months after the shooting, triumphant but terribly fragile. Today Gabby and her husband, former astronaut Mark Kelly, are organizing Americans for Responsible Solutions, a broad, non partisan call to action in the face of special interests that dominate gun control discourse about rising death tolls in the U.S. from gun violence.  

But in searching for news archives on the TVUUC story, I found instead articles about a wave of increased gun violence in Knoxville neighborhoods in recent summers, and seminars in the East Tennessee area on “how to survive workplace shootings” as professional training for employees of banks and other likely targets. During a lockdown on my University campus a few years ago, as people sat behind office doors, phones switched to silent, barely daring to breathe, i marveled at how that can be "freedom." 

Such concerns are not limited to college campuses; my daughter began learning tactics for such scenarios in elementary school. One day her after school report over snacks included the comment "I felt so bad for my friend; he thought the drill was real and wet his pants he was so scared." The principal later explained to me when I inquired that realism in such exercises is crucial to their success in preparing students to survive a shooting. Wow. 

Ok maybe if such drills had they been part of our every day church life in Knoxville, they'd have helped Greg McKendry or John Bohstedt in those seconds when they crudely and courageously gave their own lives to save others. All i know is, accepting these as reasonable risks is a glaring symptom of our inabilitto make social changes at more structural levels that reduce risk and fear in our lives as a society. 

On the 4th of July, U.S. citizens celebrate our country’s victory in a war for Independence. Some also get dressed up and drink a glass of wine or two on July 14 to celebrate France's revolutionaries who stormed the Bastille prison. What we are really celebrating is, at least in part, the distance we have traveled from those original gruesome struggles. Or have we? Back then the political stakes of power sharing seemed clear enough to motivate self sacrifice on a massive scale in the name of transformation. What passes for political motivation behind the violence in our public and sacred places today seems tragically out of step with collective mobilization for positive social change. It comes from mostly mentally ill, tragically alienated Americans. Many of them have been wronged by our society, or just have something that is wrong with them. Too often, they express that pain through murdering those who are living happily in dynamic, changing communities.  

Today's Knoxville TVUUC Minister Chris Buice helped his congregation heal from the shooting. The church moved from annual rituals of rememberance to marking the event once every ten years. TVUUC members consistently reach out to others who are victims of similar violence (such as the Sikh temple in Wisconsin, or the school in Newtown, Massachusetts, or that in Oregon a few years ago, or…). 
Buice notes that one of the hardest things to handle is the forceful hatred--of self and others--that animates the perpetrator. Survivor Tammy Sommers concurs: “It is important to stand on the side of love, peace, and kindness.” It is that simple. 

Many members of Unitarian Churches around the world found their way to it from a life of being bullied and derided as "geeks" or "freaks" or "queers" or "green radicals." They stand on the side of love because they know that asking hard questions about social norms, embracing social difference and protecting nonhuman lives on our planet has historically been punished with stonings, burnings, draggings, and--perhaps increasingly--shootings.  As the water protectors movement gains momentum in the U.S. and beyond, and the stakes in wildlife conservation get starker than ever, these are not just U.S. challenges. All around the world, wealth inequalities that worry us show no signs of abating. There is no clear single new Bastille for us to storm, no single Evil Empire against which to stand. That makes things complicated.

Nonetheless, let us rally: "Vive la Love." Let us not forget those who, unarmed, have bravely given their lives for this principle. Let us honor rather than denigrate those who show up for the marches, and churches, and rallies where they risk being targets for the violence that flows from angry fear of change. Just because some cannot trust diversity, complexity, and equitable representative political process to work for humanity's future does not mean that future is beyond our reach. Sure, we have not yet perfected the practice of these principles. But we owe it to those who brought us this far on that path to continue walking toward it, reaching for it even in the face of fear. 

As we celebrate historic political and social victories in summer’s heat each year, let it renew our vision of human connections in the face of retrenchment, fear, authoritarianism. We cannot be cowed by the "isolated incidents" of murderous anger our society refuses to term "terror." Despite very real fears of being shot for being tolerant and open, members of my childhood church stand on the side of love. For them it is no mere mantra. It is a memory, and a lived commitment that they know is fundamental to a peaceful and prosperous society.